12.1: A Duet for a Prince & Peacekeeper

Re-cap:

Francis/Theta prepares to sink the Twin Cities in an explosive event.

Meanwhile, the Serpens Establishment of Ophiuchus also rumbles with change. Jericho, who has been thrown to Ophiuchus through one of Theta’s portals from the Twin Cities, now faces a dangerous enemy alongside Olive, who has just finished taking the written portion of his exam. 


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

Jericho’s ears rang with the wail of sirens as he picked himself and his suitcase off the white tile floor.

It was an odd sensation. He knew where he had landed before he had even taken a survey of his surroundings. And that was because—

Jericho turned his head.

Olivier Chance stared back at him wide-eyed. Behind the Ariesian prince stood Sagittarian Prince Claire Yuseong, Trystan Carter, and the Sagittarian guard Felix. Jericho glanced backwards. Just behind him, two other peacekeepers were just beginning to right themselves. Gabrielle and Talib. They had been thrown to this location too through Theta’s portals, it seemed. And so had—

“Are you alright?”

Alice stood on the opposite side of the large portal that divided the hallway as she asked the question. Her voice barely carried above the wail of the sirens as her gaze swept from him to Olivier to Talib and Gabrielle. “Are you alright?” Her gaze pierced through him specifically.

She wants the truth. Not— “I’m uninjured.”

“I’m unsure,” Jericho replied after a moment’s hesitation.

Alice met his eyes and nodded. “Okay—”

“We’re fine, Alice. Go get reinforcements,” Gabrielle called above the sirens as she took in her surroundings. “Something isn’t right here. There aren’t any other agents around, and we’re right outside the Detention Center. Go. Now.”

Alice frowned, gaze lingering on Jericho and then Talib and Olivier, before she dipped her head and disappeared down the hall.

“Is that you, Olive…?” Gabrielle asked, finally noticing Olivier’s presence and then Claire’s. “And Prince Yuseong Haneul…” She reached over and shook Claire’s hand abruptly. “It’s good to see my home country getting along with Sagittarius. Though if you’re here for the State Conducting Exam, you’re in the wrong place…”

“Good to see you always focus on what’s important….” Olivier mumbled.

“Right…” Gabrielle rolled her neck and nodded to the portal. “Olive, Prince Yuseong, do you think you can make that jump? I would like to get you both as far from here as possible.”

Claire startled, glancing back at the portal before digging into his pocket and pulling out his conductor. “I can carry myself over with my conductor, but—”

Gunshots and a series of shouts resounded from down the hall in the direction of the detention center.

Jericho’s heart started racing. Correction: Olivier’s heart started racing.

The detention center. Olive’s fear bled through. Jin went down there. Izsak. I think… I’m not sure… I… the proto-conductor. I’m sorry…

It is okay, Olivier. 

Footsteps resounded down the hall and two figures came into view. A man and a woman. The man held the woman at gunpoint as he dragged her forward.

“Do not move, or I will shoot this woman.” The request barely carried over the call of the sirens.

Jericho stepped in front of Olivier. Trystan who was already in a protective stance in front of the prince gave Jericho an odd look. Jericho received the same look from Talib, but he wasn’t unused to receiving stares.

As the gun-wielding man and the hostage drew nearer, Jericho identified them. Wtorek Elizabeta, who appeared more concerned than afraid. And Wtorek Izsak, who was expressionless.

No. That wasn’t Wtorek Izsak. Cadence had heard Omicron confirm the fact days ago: Wtorek Izsak’s vitae had already left his body went the resistor was used on him. ‘Gamma’ had been initiated.

Jericho tightened his grip on his suitcase.

In other words, this Gamma had to die—

The image of the terribly conjured stuffed animal that was still resting on his bedside in his apartment abruptly flashed through Jericho’s mind. This was followed by a faded memory of Wtorek Izsak resting a hand on his head while conjuring a mountain of similarly ugly stuffed animals with a lackadaisical smile.

Jericho’s rage dampened abruptly, leaving him with an uncomfortable hollowness.

It didn’t matter who Izsak was before, Jericho thought. It wasn’t Izsak anymore.

“Move aside—” Gamma said as he pressed the gun to Elizabeta’s temple. He stopped short, however, as he registered Olive and Jericho. “True Conductors…”

“Trouble with the wife?” Gabrielle asked, smiling thinly, sweat dripping down her forehead.

Gamma didn’t respond.

How can she say that in this situation…?!

“Izsak, I’ve been hearing really weird things about ELPIS,” Gabrielle drew. “Things about ELPIS, the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, and these things called resistors.” There was a pause. “How much of you is you?”

“Would my answer change anything?” Gamma asked.

Gabrielle’s expression darkened. “Yes, yes, it would.”

Elizabeta’s brows furrowed in confusion. She craned her neck towards Gamma and whispered, “Honey, please…”

False hope.

Before Gabrielle could continue, she was suddenly thrown to the left against the wall by an unseen force. Correction: by a surge of wind. Talib was at Gabrielle’s side in an instant, checking for damages.

The sound of footsteps resounded up the hall from the direction Izsak had come from and it was followed by a sigh: “Hey, I’m doing Omicron a big favor here by busting you out and ruining my stellar Ophiucian reputation, and you repay me here by running off without me?”

Still gripping Elizabeta tightly, Gamma turned his head. Jin Ilseong appeared behind him, bow conductor cocked.

“Aunt Jiji?” Claire stammered, wide-eyed.

“The saint candidate of Sagittarius,” Talib realized.

“Aw crap,” Jin blanched as she registered Claire. “What are you doing down this way? Oh, well…”

She pointed her bow conductor, aimed it at the center of their group, and jerked it backwards. Instead of a burst of air coming at them, however, the air around them stilled and became dotted with blue light.

Something was wrong.

Olivier suddenly gasped, scratching at his throat as he fell to his knees. Trystan was on the ground too, wheezing. Claire and Felix were topped beside them. Talib and Gabrielle were in the same state along the wall.

And then Jericho felt it. The air had thinned. His chest ached dully, while he felt Olive’s chest burn as if it were on fire.

Stumbling forward, Jericho clicked open his suitcase and dragged out his conductor. He gripped his weapon tightly as his vision blurred and doubled. With this level of concentration, he knew he wouldn’t be able to properly wield it. There was only one target possible.

But Jericho’s gaze was drawn not to Jin. Instead, it was drawn to the man standing behind Jin: Gamma, who had shoved Wtorek’s wife to the side and was now staring down at them with a look of righteousness.

Jericho tightened his grip, bit the inside of his cheek unknowingly until he drew blood. Olive wheezed beside him.

There shouldn’t be hesitation, Jericho realized. The choice was clear.

Jericho whipped out his conductor sending a thin line of vitae hurtling forward. It missed its target but the effect was the same. Jin’s conductor shattered in her hand, and the blue flecks of light dotting the area dispersed.

“My conductor!” Jin yelped. “That was expensive, you jerk!”

Gasps filled the air as everyone who had been subjected to the vacuum took in a deep breath.

Jericho rubbed his throat and coughed lightly, turning to Olive who was being helped to his feet by Trystan. Trystan himself was staring at Jericho’s conductor wide-eyed. However, Claire and Felix paid him no mind as they guided each other to their feet and neither did Gabrielle nor Talib as they righted themselves. Instead of addressing him, however, the wheezing Trystan whipped out his bow conductor and fired an arrow of flame vitae straight at Gamma who had aimed his gun at them. Jin darted forward and lifted a hand in alarm to block it. A crunch resounded as the arrow wedged itself right below her middle finger. Jin swore and cradled her hand as she ripped out the arrow. But it was too late. The fire spread, igniting her entire hand in a wreath of pale rose flame.

Jin screeched as she cradled her hand. “That. Is. It!”

A burst of blue-flecked wind whirled through the hall, causing the flames to die away and leaving her hand smoking.

Trystan stared. “How—”

Don’t tell me—

Jin aimed a mock gun at Trystan and winked. “Bang!”

Out from Jin’s mock pistol came a burst of glowing air. The invisible arrow hurtled forward, striking Trystan right through the shoulder and sending him flying backwards over the portal. He hit the ground on the opposite side, rolling to a stop after a couple of meters.

Worry and panic seized Jericho’s chest.

“Trystan!” Olive shouted.

Trystan grimaced as he cradled his bleeding shoulder and craned his neck towards them. “Y-Your highness, I’m fine—watch out!”

Jericho whipped around just in time to see Jin aim another mock gun at them.

“Bang!”

Jericho launched himself at Olivier and curled around him just as a gust of wind took them backwards and into the portal.

***

Olive’s ears rang as his eyes adjusted to the light. It took him a moment to realize that Jericho was draped over him. Their gazes met.

“Are you okay?” Jericho asked as if everything that had just happened was a walk in the park. He cocked his head. “It’s not a walk in the park. It’s dangerous.”

Jericho unfurled from him and rose to a stand to assess his surroundings. Olive did the same, albeit more hesitantly.

The atmosphere was warmer now, Olive realized, and everything was brighter. And colorful. Particles of light floated through the air fluorescently, casting everything in a multicolored, psychedelic glow. This light originated from below the raised bridge that they were now on top of. Vitae reservoirs. Thirteen of them.

It was the tourist attraction site within Ophiuchus that Jericho had taken them to before ELPIS attacked the detention center.

But… where were the tourists? It was empty.

It was shut down before I left. To do a double-check and clean down any of Theta’s portals. 

Well, they obviously hadn’t scrubbed it down well enough.

A duet of groans arose from just beside Olive. Talib and Claire, who were just beginning to pick themselves off of the ground. Talib rose first and offered Claire a hand. The Sagittarian accepted the gesture dazedly.

“It seems like we’ve been tossed to the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs,” Talib assessed.

Olive nodded at Claire. “You… okay?”

Claire was pale, dazed, quiet, unlike himself. His conductor was loosely gripped in his hand. “I…” His gaze flicked to and then past Olive.

Olive turned his head.

Theta’s portal was open just a couple of feet away from them at a hidden strip just in front of the railing on the left side of the bridge. In front of that portal stood Jin and Gamma.

It was just the six of them here, Olive realized. Gabrielle, Trystan, and Felix must have either been thrown to a different location if they entered the portal or they were still within the Serpens Establishment.

“I don’t have my suitcase,” Jericho whispered to both Olive and Talib.

“You don’t have your conductor,” Olive realized.

“Okay, okay,” Jin grumbled, brushing off her uniform and fixing her hair. She slid her hands into her pockets and nodded at them. “Let’s just go our separate ways now, alright?” She thumbed Gamma. “I’m just here for him. Not ya’ll. So let’s not create some dramatic fight about this, okay? I’m tired. My head hurts. My reputation is ruined.”

“I will not leave until those True Conductors have been put down,” Gamma said, gripping his handgun tightly. He glanced to the side at the light rising up the bridge from the vitae reservoirs below. “And this reservoir—”

“You’re the one who’s going to be put down.” Jericho glowered.

Olive blanched. Was it really the best idea to make threats without a weapon?

I need to let him know, Olivier.

Okay then.

“Yeesh. Why are you two so violent?” Jin sighed before nodding back at Gamma. “Omicron and your gang are waiting for you to tell them what’s what with the syzygy and everything, you know that?” She twirled a finger around her temple. “They’re missing some marbles. Your records aren’t so great.”

Gamma frowned. “You didn’t tell them?”

“I’m already doing enough for you, aren’t I?”

Gamma didn’t respond and instead lock eyes with Olive.

Olive’s hand subconsciously went to his throat as he felt the ghost of Wtorek’s—no, Gamma’s hand—hand wrap around it. The memory of the intent to kill in that man’s eyes in New Ram City all those months ago still haunted Olive’s nightmares. It was the same here. A nightmare bleeding into reality.

“There is no point in me being here if I don’t deal with this,” Gamma responded, lifting his gun.

Jin shrugged. “Well, you heard the man. He won’t go away until I put you down so it can’t be helped.” She took a step forward.

Olive’s heart raced, chest still achingly raw from Maria’s loss of Conta. He glanced at Jericho as cold sweat broke down his back before he pulled the peacekeeper behind him and extended his hand. With a grimace, he drew a line of flame vitae between his group and the two outsiders.

“I’ll burn you to a crisp,” Olive said, managing to keep the shake out of his voice, “if you take another step forward.”

“I heard rumors but….” Talib murmured from behind him. “You really can conduct without a conductor…”

Olive stiffened and looked back at Talib to find the man studying him perplexed. Before any words could be exchanged, however, a cold gust of wind speckled with blue blasted through the area. The torrent extinguished Olive’s drawn line and knocked him clear off of his feet. Jericho caught him by the scruff of his shirt and righted him.

“Wow, you’ve sure improved a lot in that short amount of time, kiddo.” Jin whistled, as she waved off the smoke in the air. “But air still beats fire. Like paper beats rock.” With that, Jin flicked out her hand and then curled it into a fist.

Unlike before, the vacuum formed in an instant. Olive fell forward as his vision blurred Talib and Claire were already collapsed on the ground. The Sagittarian prince was still conscious, however, reaching for his conductor which had fallen from his hands.

Jericho…

Jericho stumbled towards Jin but eventually he too fell to his knees. Still, he crawled forward relentlessly as Olive’s vision faded to black—

—and then brightness cracked across Olive’s vision. As he tried to get his bearings, Olive came to realize that he was somehow now only inches away from Jin who was looking down at him with an arched brow. No. He was seeing through Jericho’s eyes. Relentless Jericho.

“Geeze, Glasses, you’re desperate, aren’t you?” Jin sighed.

Fire needs oxygen to spread. And if Jin’s removing the oxygen via vitae particles from the air, then she has to be shifting the oxygen atoms somewhere else, Jericho. Somewhere else being right—

Olive urged Jericho to extend his fingertips further and further until Olive was able to feel the slight change in the air pattern surrounding the woman through Jericho’s fingertips.

—here. 

Just before the white sparks erupted from Jericho’s hands, a flicker of black appeared out of the corner of Olive’s—rather, Jericho’s— eyes. Olive knew who it was immediately. Lavi. She gazed through Jericho at him with a sharp expression that Olive had never seen on her face before.

“Don’t hold back,” she said. “Not with them.”

With an audible roar, the white flames burst forward in aninstant, consuming Jin in a white aura of fire. Gamma and Jericho were thrown backwards in opposite directions by the explosion.

Through Jericho’s eyes, Olive was able to see Claire gasp, grab his conductor, and whip it through the air. Flecks of sky-blue light shot out from his conductor followed by a gust of wind.

Olive’s eyes fluttered open. His senses returned to him as he took a deep breath, gasping, heaving. Air had never tasted so good. But as thankful as Olive was for the additional oxygen Claire had brought in, the gift came with an acrid, all too familiar scent. Burning flesh. At the smell, he gagged and retched before screeching and wailing reached his ears above the crackle of flame. Olive turned in slow horror towards the sound. The silhouette of a human enveloped in a crown of white flame stumbled back and forth along the bridge in agony.

“A-Aunt Jiji…”

Claire was wide-eyed, unmoving beside Olive.

And then Olive’s horror settled in—the horror at Jin’s immolation, the horror at the realization that he had meant to do this to Jin. It wasn’t like how it was with Gamma back in New Ram City. Not like how it was with the Sagittarian assassins weeks ago. This time, to protect the others, to not die, to continue on, he had been intending wholeheartedly to… kill?

Tears burning at his eyes, Olive bent over and gagged again as revulsion seized his entire body. But before he could fully empty his stomach contents, an agonizing anger crumpled his chest. His gaze was torn from Jin and towards Jericho who had picked himself off the ground only a second after the fiery explosion, who had run past the immolated Jin, who had launched himself at Gamma without hesitation. Now on top of the man, Jericho wrapped fingers around his throat.

Olive could feel Jericho’s hands tightening around Gamma’s neck, could feel the other man struggle fruitlessly beneath Jericho’s grasp, could feel life leaving the man’s body.

But what if Izsak is still

Jericho hesitated but only for one moment before he squeezed and squeezed and—

No. False hope. False hope.

—was tossed backwards by an abrupt torrent of wind.

“That really, really frickin’ hurt, kiddo.”

Olive’s gaze flicked to the one who had spoken and nearly fainted at the sight of her. It was Jin, no longer surrounded by white flames and instead cloaked in gray smoke. Her suit was badly tattered and singed at the edges, but despite that, her Ophiuchian armband shone brightly. And she looked unscathed. Unharmed. Just covered by a thin layer of soot and ash.

How…? Olive couldn’t comprehend it. Had she driven the oxygen away with her vitae particles? But he had seen her ignite in flame. What in the world—

“…But I see that you’ve got someone you’re connected to in our ranks,” Jin noted. “That changes things up.” She glanced at Claire then at Olive then at Jericho. She threw a look back at Gamma who didn’t look at all surprised by her lack of injury and then at Talib. “Let’s clear the stage of the non-essentials, shall we?”

And with that, Jin threw out her arms outwards towards opposite sides of the bridge. A gust of twin winds kicked up, one throwing Gamma straight into the portal and the other tossing Talib right off the bridge.

Jericho hesitated for less than a second, before he launched himself not towards the portal that Gamma had disappeared into but towards the railings after Talib. He managed to reach the rails just as Talib tumbled past him. Missed by a hairsbreadth.

“Claire!” Olive shouted in panic.

Claire snapped out of his stupor, twirled his conductor, and took off from the bridge in a blast of wind. He hurtled downwards after Talib, disappearing with a boom that shook the bridge.

Jericho stiffened and whipped his attention back to the portal—the portal that had dimmed away back into a black stain. Olive felt the rage in Jericho’s chest dissipate instantly. But the emptiness that the feeling left behind was almost as unbearable.

But they had to focus.

A click-clacking suddenly echoed from behind Olive. Upon turning his head, he found a newcomer coming up the bridge slowly. A woman. She was flanked on her left and right by a peacekeeper. The light from the reservoirs cast her golden hair in an odd light.

Leona.

It was the first time Olive had seen her up close himself, and something about her gave him unease.

Wasn’t she back in the Twin Cities? Had she fallen into one of the portals? Even if she did fall into one leading to the Serpens Establishment, why did she come here?

His gaze flicked to the two peacekeepers behind her.

And that wasn’t even close to enough people to handle Jin, was it?

Jericho was at his side immediately, expressionless.

“Are you two alright?” Leona asked as she fell into step beside them. She was calm. Unnervingly calm.

Olive tensed, nodded.

“How are you here?” Jericho. Direct as ever.

“I fell through one of Theta’s gates,” Leona explained, “and landed in the Serpens Establishment. With the sirens blaring, I suspected that Gamma was being freed. And if he was free, I assumed I would have to keep an eye on our reservoir. It seems as if I’ve made the correct choice.”

… How had she known Gamma’s name?

“My partner. Talib,” Jericho said. “He—”

“I saw,” Leona replied calmly. “Believe me when I say he will be fine. The Sagittarian prince—”

“Come on, Leo.” Jin sighed from across the bridge. “You’re always butting in where you don’t need to butt in.”

“You’re an embarrassment, Jin,” Leona replied, meeting the woman’s gaze. “Why are you doing this?”

So Jin hadn’t been lying. They did know each other. Closely.

“I just felt like it.” Jin shrugged. “Was bored. Felt like fighting for the losing side for once. A change of direction. Don’t you ever feel bored with winning?”

“And Gamma?”

“Gone with the wind.” Jin thumbed the black stain.

Leona looked her over. “And are you still to pursue this route, Saint of Arrow and Direction?”

Jin cracked a grin. “Of course, Leo. I mean—since we’re being formal now—of course, ‘Saint of Victory’.”

Leona motioned for one of the peacekeepers behind her with an index finger. The peacekeeper shuffled forward, placing a belt in Leona’s waiting hand. The belt was equipped with a number of bladeless hilts, several handguns lined with glass tubes, and other miscellaneous weapons. Conductors. She calmly clipped the accessory around her waist.

Leona nodded at Jericho. “Jericho, please escort the Ariesian prince back to the Serpens Establishment.”

Jericho stared.

Claire’s got Talib. I’m sure of it.

Jericho continued to stare. “You… will face Jin alone?”

“Of course,” Leona replied. “As I said earlier, the traitor who allowed all of this to come into fruition is not your concern. It is mine—”

Olive suddenly felt the hair on the back of Jericho’s neck rise. Jericho whipped around just in time to see Jin cock a mock gun in their direction.

“Bang!”

Leona pushed the both of them backwards, drawing out a bladeless hilt and igniting it in a flash of gold. She did a strange twisting movement with her wrist and dispelled the invisible arrow of air with a flourish.

Jin changed course and curled her hand into a fist. The air thinned again, and Olive’s vision blurred. However, in one swift movement that was barely perceptible to Olive’s eye, Leona plucked a bladeless hilt from her belt, ignited it, and threw it at Jin. The screech it made as it tore through the air was unsaintly, and it hit Jin’s shoulder right on target. The woman yelped, and the air instantaneously became breathable again.

“Dammit!” Jin snapped, before ripping the conductor from her shoulder and tossing it to the ground. She frowned, taking a step backwards. “I forgot how good you were when it comes to close quarters…”

Jin flicked her wrist, and the feel of the air changed. Olive braced himself gawked when Jin suddenly shot up to the sky leaving glowing flecks of blue light in her wake.

Leona reached into her belt again and drew out another bladeless conductor. Instead of throwing it, however, she swung it upwards. Out from its tip unfurled a gold whip that flew out and wrapped itself around Jin’s ankle. Giving the whip a sharp tug, Leona slammed Jin back onto the ground. The Sagittarian groaned as the bridge trembled.

Leona glanced back at them. “Agent Jericho, I told you to escort the prince away.” Her eyes were ringed with an intense golden light.

Without thinking, Olive stumbled back, grabbed a hold of Jericho’s hand, and pulled him backwards. And then he began to run, leaving behind Leona and her two apparently non-combative assistants, leaving behind Jin, leaving behind the reservoirs. He pounded up the bridge dragging Jericho along behind him. He had no idea if he was heading in the right direction. He just knew he had to get himself and Jericho away. Just like he had dragged Werner away from that battlefield. Pathetic. But sometimes running away was the best route.

A sudden and loud sonic boom resounded in the air followed by a loud clang. Olive glanced left just in time to see a wrestling Leona and Jin crash down from the sky onto a bridge running parallel to them. Jin untangled herself from Leona and shot up to the sky again; but the other woman leaped onto the railings of the bridge, ran along its length, launched herself up at Jin, and wrapped her arms around Jin’s legs. They fumbled there for a moment before Jin flew higher and higher until they disappeared into the clouds.

What in saint’s name…

This was ridiculous. Were they even human?

Abruptly, Jericho stopped running behind him.

Olive stopped too and turned. He knew what Jericho was thinking of. Gamma and the portal.

They have been right in front of me, Olivier. This entire time. This is the closest I’ve gotten. To them. And my purpose is to eliminate false hope. Destroy them. But I let them go. Not just here with Gamma. With Theta. With Omicron. Only Omega. It’s not enough.

Jericho stared into Olive, causing Olive’s heart to skip a beat. The man’s eyes were intense. Almost scary.

Is it this connection? Am I forgetting? A pause. I would rather become nothingness than for my anger to disappear. It’s my purpose. 

The memory of Theta’s words— “You’re already close to becoming nothingness”— to Jericho resounded within Olive’s mind.

I can’t fail. I am going to eventually become nothingness. That is fine. That is natural whether what ELPIS has taught me is true or not. But only if I fulfill my purpose before then. I can’t fail.

Olive’s heart dropped to his stomach. Hearing Jericho think that was…

They killed your family. But you don’t feel hatred. 

Olive’s heart dropped even further at the statement, but he shook his head. Was this really the time to be thinking about this?

Jericho continued to stare at him.

Olive guessed it was.

Of course I’m angry, Jericho. At them. At myself. I obviously want them to go down and to be locked up for good. But for me, killing them won’t do anything. It’s stupid and meaningless. And it doesn’t get anyone anywhere. And I can’t live with the guilt of doing something like that. No matter who or what they are.

Frowning, Olive studied Jericho from the corner of his eye.

I can’t wrap my head around your revenge thing at all. I don’t agree with it… And I know my opinion doesn’t mean much. Doctor Kingsley probably knows better. But I don’t think it’s good for you. I mean, there’s literally a bunch of books saying things like ‘revenge is a cycle’… then again, I’m an idiot and naive so who cares what I think. 

Jericho blinked. I care. What you think.

Okay. Then I don’t think the ‘become nothingness’ spiel even means anything. Doesn’t matter whether the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis is true or not. Burning energy versus burning a soul.

An uneasiness took over Olive at the thought of it ringing true.

But that’s not the point.

He grabbed a hold of Jericho’s wrist, tugging him forward and continuing with him onwards down the bridge.

The point is that there’s still stuff after too—whether you decide to keep going with this revenge thing or go for a different route. 

Their footsteps echoed along the walkway, interspersing with the resounding booms of Leona and Jin’s battle in the distance.

If being a part of this has taught me anything, it’s that there’s always stuff after. 

Olive let out a sigh of relief as the edge of the bridge neared their sights. Just beyond that was a pathway leading to an empty train station.

Not ‘nothingness’.

Jericho’s eyes widened slightly.

Finally, they reached the threshold of the bridge.

Olive slumped and proceeded to collapse onto the ground panting. Jericho blinked down at him, not even remotely out of breath.

“That is an ‘interesting’ way of thinking.”

Olive grimaced back up at him. “When you do air quotes, it’s just insulting.”

I think I appreciate it.

Olive stiffened before grimacing.

A shadow suddenly passed over both of their heads causing them to tense. When Olive looked up to the sky, however, he let out a sigh.

It was Claire, slowly sinking towards them while riding his staff conductor. Balancing precariously on the staff beside him was Talib who had one arm slung over the Sagittarian’s shoulder. Olive felt Jericho’s chest lighten immediately. Although Jericho didn’t fully comprehend the feeling, Olive did. It was relief, filling in the emptiness inside of Jericho.

“Partner, it’s good to see you in one piece!” Talib exclaimed as he hopped off of the staff with Claire’s assistance.

“I am glad you’re okay,” Jericho responded.

Olive winced. Jericho was still so awkward.

Jericho blinked down at him.

Olive winced again before he stiffened and turned to Claire “Leona and Jin—”

“Yeah… We saw both of them while we were flying over here,” Claire muttered. His expression was grim, pale, but still he offered Olive his hand and helped him up to his feet. “Seems like you were right then.”

Olive opened his mouth, unsure of what to exactly say, but then another boom resounded and he allowed the silence to continue.

Talib broke the quiet, peering at Jericho hopefully. “And… Izsak?”

“Gone,” Jericho replied curtly. “Through Theta’s portal.”

Talib’s expression fell.

A click-clacking suddenly echoed from behind them. It was Leona, drifting down the bridge towards them. She was sweating and panting lightly, but she appeared unharmed. She assessed them silently as she came to a stop in front of them before she paused and assessed Talib. “Are you all alright?”

Olive nodded as did Claire. Talib inclined his head. Jericho remained impassive.

“Good.” Leona extended her hand. “Talib, Jericho, I would like any of the suppression cuffs you still have on you.”

Without hesitation, Talib unhooked both of his from his belt and handed it to her. Jericho stared at Talib before following suit. Leona clipped the items to her own belt before turning on her heels and starting down the bridge again.

“Did… Did you…?” Claire called after her.

“I will take Ilseong Jin into custody where she will face trial for collusion with ELPIS,” Leona answered curtly, disappearing from their sights and leaving the click-clack of her heels echoing in her wake.

Olive glanced at Claire who was whiter than a ghost and winced. He opened his mouth and then closed it, still unsure of what to say. It was easy to convey his feelings to the others he was connected to, but with those outside of their group, it was still…

That didn’t go as planned, Jericho thought.

Olive turned to Jericho and sighed with a grumble. It never does.

Would it be customary to… hug now?

Olive hesitated, considering. No.

11.6: Olive’s (Nascosto) Test

Re-cap:

Olive has been in the Bodhi Temple of Sagittarius studying for his State Conducting Exam. Alongside him is Claire and Claire’s sister Eunji who is also studying for the exam. The saint candidate of Sagittarius Ilseong Jin appears before Olive ominously casting doubt on Olive’s efforts and Olive’s sister Lavi. She is then revealed to have ties with ELPIS.

As the night of their plan comes into fruition, Olive’s part is to…

Olive opened his eyes.

The clicks and clacks of the train trudging along the tracks were the first things he became aware of. Then came his awareness of the surrounding animated chatter.

Across from him sat Jin, sandwiched in-between Claire and the latter’s step-sister Mai. At Claire’s left sat Eunji with her head buried in her book, and at Mai’s right sat Kai who was looking at the scenery flitting past the train-car window. The rest of the compartment was filled with Claire’s and Mai’s entourage. It was a rather tight fit, but the heat wasn’t unpleasant. It reminded Olive of the air back home. At Olive’s left sat Trystan who mumbled a “Did you sleep well?” as Olive gained his bearings.

“Yeah.”

No.

“Good morning, kiddo.” Jin flashed him a grin.

Ignoring her, Olive rose from his seat and headed over to the corner of the train cart where his bird had been placed alongside all of his other belongings. The blackbird tweeted at his approach, and he looked around expectantly for Lavi to show her face. But she didn’t.

Olive grimaced and stared at Jin’s reflection on the window beside him.

He knew that his portion in this plan of theirs was rather simple. Much more simple than the tasks of the other five. And yet still, he wouldn’t be able to do it without Cadence’s help. It was pathetic.

“Seeing that bird in that cage is pretty depressing.”

Olive startled and whipped around to find Jin hovering over his shoulder.

“I would say set the bird free,” Jin continued, “but what’s the point? It’s been conditioned to captivity, so it’ll be absolutely useless when you let it loose in the wild.”

“I see you’re an ornithologist now,” Olive muttered. “People really are into fields that reflect their personality.”

“Are you calling me bird-brained?” Jin whistled. “You have a lot of gusto, kiddo. Wonder if I’ll ever see that aloof arrogance disappear.” Her smile thinned. “I’ll be looking forward to it.” She chuckled. “Just kidding, kiddo. Maybe in my next life.”

***

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

The train docked at The Grand Snake Station five hours later.

As Olive was gathering his belongings alongside Trystan and Claire, he kept his eye glued on Jin. She hadn’t brought much with her on their train ride and was busy chatting with the car attendant at the cabin’s exit.

It was now or never.

Olive sucked in a breath as he headed towards her; and then with unpracticed uneasiness, he tripped forward. He let out a yelp and reached out for the closest thing to him, which just so happened to be—as calculated—Jin. She whipped around quickly and caught him mid-fall. His vision went black for a moment. When it returned, Jin was flashing him another grin.

“Nerves?”

“Sure,” Olive muttered, peeling away from her and quickly shoving his right hand into his pocket. He beckoned for Trystan with a jerk of his head and headed through the train doors behind Jin. Abruptly, Jin reached out and grabbed his shoulder. Olive tensed, heart hammering, and turned back towards her.

“Good luck on your exam,” Jin hummed, tightening her grip. She nodded at Claire, Eunji, Mai, and Kai who had just finished packing their things. “All of you.”

“You’re not coming to watch?” Claire asked perturbed.

“I’ve got something I need to take care of first. I’ll be around though,” Jin answered, stepping off the train with a wave. “Good luck!”

Olive swallowed, curling his fingers around the proto-conductor that Cadence had just plucked from Jin in his pocket. Now all he had to do was keep an eye on her and figure out what to do with the proto-conductor. Keeping it away from her was the best option at the moment. But first, he had to stop acting suspicious. Shrugging his shoulders, he shuffled off the train and stepped out onto the platform.

It was annoyingly crowded. Men and women in black and white uniforms brushed past him without care, while men and women dressed in casual wear looked around at them in confusion. Despite the overwhelming crowd and noise, Olive didn’t find it jarring or uncomfortable. Even though he had been to this place only once many years ago, everything was still very familiar to him. Beside him, Trystan surveyed the area while balancing all of their belongings.

Claire appeared from behind with a pleasant smile. “Lost?”

Behind the Sagittarian prince stood Felix, Soha, and Eunji. Mai and Kai and their entourage seemed to be elsewhere. Good.

“Because we are,” Claire finished. “You wouldn’t happen to know a friend who knows their way around, would you?”

Olive didn’t know what Claire was playing at, and he was too tired and anxious to even think about it. So, without complaint or response, Olive led them to and through a straight pathway in an open yard dotted with statues of faceless, genderless figures. The pathway eventually led to a large white marble staircase that extended as far wide as it extended high. It seemed completely impractical, but instead of grumbling about it to himself, Olive found himself staring at a spot at the foot of the steps.

He was certain.

This was the very spot that Jericho had struck when he’d been pushed from the top by Omega. This was where Jericho almost died. This… was a safety hazard.

Olive shivered but was jarred out of his thoughts by a hand on his shoulder.

Claire chuckled. “Mentally preparing yourself for the climb?”

***

When they reached the top of the staircase, they were greeted by an army of peacekeepers who prompted them to turn in any conductors they had. Olive and Trystan flashed them golden, hexagonal medallions imprinted with the Ariesian royal ram, while Claire and his entourage flashed silver medallions carved with Sagittarian letters. The peacekeepers looked the identifications over, before allowing their group to pass with their conductors. A little bit of misdirection with Cadence’s assistance allowed Olive to slip the proto-conductor past them too.

“Perks of being royalty,” Claire sang.

After passing a vitae spectrophotometer test within, they were directed inside and given directions to a room to store their belongings. The directions were poor, of course, and vague too. But thankfully, Jericho synchronized at just the right moment and directed Olive on where to go. Eventually, Olive guided the group to a large storage room where they checked in their belongings with several peacekeepers.

Olive didn’t ask these peacekeepers for the directions to the examination room. Instead, he continued forward with a shrug and led the Claire and the others to an open room on the fourth floor of the establishment. STATE CONDUCTING EXAM was emblazoned on a plaque just outside of the room.

No use in it being there, Olive thought, if people couldn’t even find the room to begin with.

The room’s walls were guarded by rows of white waiting chairs, half of which were occupied. They bypassed these chairs in favor of approaching the half-circle receptionist desk at the room’s center.

A familiar man with black curls and a tattooed face manned the desk’s forefront. It was Moraeni, the Piscese peacekeeper who was a part of Gabrielle’s inner circle.

The man greeted them pleasantly at the desk; and after ascertaining which members of their party were taking the exam and checking their identities, he handed Eunji and Olive each a slip of paper with a number on it. He didn’t seem affected by their twin statuses of royalty.

“That’ll be your examinee number, and if you pass this exam, it’ll be your license number,” Moraeni explained in Common. “Please be aware that it’ll take around two months for you to receive your license if you pass due to secondary background checks. Also, while you can come in and take the written exam on any day of your choice, you must take the practical portion on the day you’ve taken the written portion. If you don’t, you’ll have to take the written portion again.” He gave an apologetic smile, the formality in his body and tone dissipating. “It’s just how the system works. Sorry.”

Olive nodded, not particularly caring.

“As you know, only the examinees are allowed to be in this room while the exam is being proctored,” Moraeni addressed Claire, Soha, Felix, and Trystan, “so go ahead and exchange your good wishes.” He nodded back to an ominous-looking black door just behind him. “When you’re done, the test takers may enter through that door to the examination room.”

Claire pulled Eunji to the side and began to speak to her quietly. Felix and Soha stood in front of them, blocking the siblings from Olive’s view. Not that Olive needed a first-row ticket to family drama. Ignoring them, Olive pulled Trystan to the far corner of the room.

“I need you to do something for me,” he said.

“What is it, your highne—Olivier?”

“I need you to find Jin and keep an eye on her.”

Trystan frowned somewhat but obliged. “… Of course, Olivier.”

“But keep your distance. Don’t… don’t get too close.” Olive reached out, squeezed his arm.

Trystan nodded hesitantly and departed from the room alongside Claire and his two guards. Olive sighed and grimaced before heading towards the ominous door. He found Eunji standing right in front of it, stiff with a constipated expression. He would’ve chuckled at the sight if he wasn’t as nervous himself. And not just about the exam.

“Come on.” Olive gave Eunji a nudge forward. “Can’t take the test standing.”

Together, they stepped inside.

The room was spacious and wide. It held a lecturer’s podium at its center with interconnected desks arching around it. A handful of young men and women who looked nauseous already occupied several of the desks.

The entirety of it reminded Olive of the lecture halls back in New Ram City.

Olive helped Eunji find her seat before walking over to the desk that was marked with his number and taking a seat himself. The test proctor came to a stand at the center of the room and monologued about rules, cheating, and time frames as another proctor started passing out the exams.

When Olive received his own exam packet, he grimaced. It was more like a tome than anything else. Almost an inch thick. As much as he cared for Atienna’s love of plants and trees, he sincerely hoped it was single-sided.

“—and now,” the test proctor boomed with an aggravatingly dramatic flourish, “you may begin!”

Taking a deep breath, Olive picked up the pencil that they had provided to him and flipped open to the first page.

Double-sided.

Damn. 

***

Olive finished the exam with an hour to spare. After double-checking his answers and switching back and forth between A and C for several questions on the multiple-choice section, he decided enough was enough. He shut the packet, signed his name at the front of the thing like he was signing his will, and handed the packet to the proctor.

As he made his exit, he realized that Eunji’s seat was empty. She had completed her exam before him, it seemed. It was a slight blow to his ego, but it was mended a second later when Olive spied Kai among the seated examinees. The man was staring holes into his testing paper and seemed to be sweating and swearing under his breath.

Olive swept out of the room and let out a sigh. He stopped short, however, as he registered Eunji sitting along the wall with her head buried in her hands. He grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck before walking over and sinking down beside her.

“What did you put for number 23b in section C?” Eunji asked, snapping up to stare at him. “The question about the vitae particles and kick-starter?”

“Would knowing what I put change anything?” Olive arched a brow.

Eunji stared down at her hands, opened her mouth, grimaced, fell silent.

Talk about awkward.

But Olive could tell what was going through her mind. Only a couple of months ago, he’d been going through the same thought process. The desire not to be useless but the fear of being useful. Trying to dissect if the effort was worth anything at all in the end.

“You should stop thinking so much and just worry about what you can do now. The rest will come later,” Olive finally said. When Eunji blinked up at him hesitantly, he jerked his head towards the exit. “Let’s go. Unless you have a friend you’re waiting for.”

Upon exiting the examination room with Eunji in tow, Olive found Claire, Soha, and Felix lounging around in the hall just outside. Claire beamed at their appearance and rushed over to Eunji’s side.

“How was it?” he asked.

Eunji shrugged.

Olive cast a glance to the side and was startled to find Trystan approaching them from down the hall. Olive detached himself from the Sagittarian and met Trystan halfway.

“Trystan?” Olive asked. “You couldn’t find her?”

“No, I did find her, Olivier,” Trystan replied, dipping his head. “But she entered a location that I was barred entry from.”

“What’s going on?” Claire asked as he joined them alongside his sister and bodyguards.

“It’s nothing—” Olive began.

“This is about my aunt, isn’t it?” Claire interjected.

Eunji looked between them in confusion. “What about Aunt Jiji…?”

Olive turned back to Trystan. “Show me where.”

Trystan startled. “But, Olivier, your practical exam is—”

“The practical portion isn’t for another two hours,” Olive interjected. “Take me, Trystan—”

Claire placed a hand on Olive’s arm and urged, “I’m comin with you. This is one of the people of my clan.”

Olive regarded him for a moment before brushing his hand aside and nodding.

Claire turned back to Eunji and his vassals. “Soha, stay with Eunji. Felix, with me.”

“Yes, my lord,” came the affirmations in unison.

***

Olive’s heart hammered in his chest as Trystan directed them through white halls, past suited peacekeepers who only spared their traveling group a glance, past rooms marked with department names and numbers, down several floor levels. As Trystan continued to lead them onwards and as they continued to descend the Serpens Establishment, Olive came to realize that he knew this route. Down, down, down they went until they reached the first-floor level and made their way through a near-empty corridor.

Olive knew what was at the end of this corridor. He—no, Jericho—had been down this way once before. At the end of this hall would be a series of tightly guarded checkpoints that only certain Ophiuchian agents were able to get past. After that, they would be greeted by a metal elevator that would bring them to the depths of the Black Constellation Detention Center.

Olive stopped short in his tracks halfway down the hall. Trystan, Claire, and Felix turned back to look at him.

It’s okay, Olive tried to reassure himself. As long as Jin didn’t have Theta’s proto-conductor, whatever she was planning, she wouldn’t be able to properly execute. She wouldn’t even think about doing that… right?

A loud boom resounded from down the hallway. The sound was followed by the rumbling and groaning of the entire building. Dust fell from the ceiling and a crack appeared on the floor.

Then the sirens blared.

Trystan was at Olive’s side immediately, bow conductor drawn. Felix drew near to Claire but didn’t move to conjure anything.

Olive was in no state to pay attention because Maria’s anguish suddenly tore through his heart like a knife. He doubled over at the intense emotion thatt weighed down his chest like an anchor. Olive thought he’d never feel like this again. This pain, this heaviness, this guilt.

Maria….

Olive had been alone when he had suffered these feelings after the Tragedy of Aries and—

He grimaced.

—he wouldn’t let Maria go through it alone like he did. He clawed his way towards her, increasing their synchronization through the haze of sorrow until he was with her. With her facing Conta. With her charging in fury at Conta. With great effort, he convinced Maria to quell her rampage, and he was left drained at the attempt. Maria was a force of nature. Sometimes Olive doubted if she was human. But still. He didn’t want her to be alone—

Something buzzed warm in Olive’s right pocket, bringing him back into his reality in the hallways of the Serpens Establishment. Glancing down, he found that his pocket was glowing. He dug into it, pulled out Theta’s proto-conductor. It was bright, burning hot.

Reflexively, he yelped and dropped the thing. It shattered as soon as it hit the ground, spewing the glowing substance across the floor with a splatter. The liquid-like substance trickled along the ground, crawling forward until it eventually divided the hall in two.

Trystan jerked Olive backwards away from the newly formed portal just as it nearly reached his foot. Olive offered him a subdued look of gratitude before he realized that their entire group was on the side of the hall leading towards the detention center. He looked back and then forward, measuring the distance the portal covered with his eye. It looked at least several feet wide.

Suddenly, from that newly formed portal, a familiar voice cracked out—

“There really is no hope.”

Only a second later, out from the pool of light flew four figures in monochrome uniforms. Three landed on Olive’s side of the hall, while one landed on the opposite side. Olive recognized one of the peacekeepers who landed on his side immediately. The recognition was paired with relief.

Jericho.


The State Conductor Exam (sometimes referred to as the State Conducting Exam) is a standardized examination given to propsective Conductors. Established six months following the foundation of Ophiuchus as a peacekeeping state, this exam consists of three portions: written, practical, and interview. The written portion consists of questions regarding conducting principal and vitae theory, while the practical consists of conductor maneuverability and usage. 

Altogether, the exam can take 7.5 hours to complete.

In order to receive a State Conductor’s License, one must pass this test. 

Conducting Informational Packet, circa 1935

10.1: Olive’s Dimming (Fiammata)

Re-cap: 

Olive is at the Bodhi Temple studying for the State Conducting Exam. He is also there to partially protect Claire’s sister Eunji from rival clans using his status as Ariesian Prince. In exchange, Claire is to translate Sagittarian texts for him.

On a moonlit night, Olive encounters the saint candidate of Sagittarius, Ilseong Jin, who is also a peacekeeper and is Claire’s aunt. Jin unnerves Olive with her knowledge of True Conductors, his sister, and the mysterious syzygy but does not seem to be hostile. Fortunately, Olive is able to form a bond of trust with Claire despite the circumstances. His trust with Cadence, on the other hand, crumbles as he realizes that she has selfishly overridden Werner. Still far from the dangers of the Twin Cities, Olive…

Bodhi Temple, Sagittarius

Thwack.

“We’re leaving for Ophiuchus at the end of the week, Ollie.”

Thwack.

“… Already?”

Thwack.

“Eunji is bright. Way brighter than me, and I’m pretty bright. She’s already memorized all the materials that they usually put on the exam and then some. She’s just got to memorize a couple more of the conducting motions for the practical and we’re ready to go.”

Thwack.

“And memorizing is the same thing as learning?”

Thwack.

“Well, you can’t learn anything if you don’t memorize it. Education in Sagittarius is centered around memorization, actually.”

Thwack.

Silence.

Thwack.

“I know what you’re thinking, Ollie. You’re thinking about the others in your circle, aren’t you? I can see it all over your face. And I get it. We’re both lucky to be born in positions where our struggles are more social and political than physical… I’m sure at least some people in your circle aren’t as lucky as us.”

Thwack.

“But it’s really a waste of energy thinking about it, Ollie.”

Thwack.

“Wow, Claire…” A mocking clap. “Thanks for your unwanted words of wisdom. Did they teach you that in politician school?”

Thwack.

“Hey, I’m trying to be helpful here. One of yours was seriously injured that night, right? You’re lucky to be alive… I’m serious.” A sigh. “Anyway, I’m assuming from the way you’ve been acting that you haven’t been able to talk to the one who got hurt. That really sucks, but the fact is that you’re all still alive. And you’re not doing whoever it is any favors by moping about it. Trust me. I know first-hand. You should focus on the things you can do instead of the things you can’t—”

Crack!

Olive startled, turning his attention away from Claire and towards the archery range laid out in front of them. A row of targets bulleted with arrows was lined up at the far end of the range. Just below the open terrace Olive occupied, Trystan and Jin stood side-by-side poised with their bow conductors.

Claire leaned forward with interest beside Olive, and Claire’s guards who stood behind him did the same. Several monks had gathered around to watch the spectacle as well, leaving Olive to wonder how much free time they actually had. Then again, the current archery match unfolding truly was something to gawk at—especially on Jin’s end.

If Jin had terrified Olive the other night with her showy ridiculous enigmatic monologue, she had now completely horrified him with her prowess at both conducting and archery.

Trystan who was most definitely a skilled archer was clearly losing ground.

Alexander Charming used to rattle on about Trystan’s skill back at the palace. Olive hadn’t cared much for Alexander’s praise then, but over the past few months, Olive had come to appreciate Trystan’s prowess. In fact, Olive had felt a bit of pride when Trystan had first stepped out onto the archery range and had hit each of the targets right through the bullseye marks with a single arrow of fire vitae each. But then Jin had swooped in, twirling her bow conductor in hand before splitting and extinguishing Trystan’s fire arrows with invisible arrows of air.

It seemed unnatural—both Jin’s loose archery style and her bow conductor. Her bow conductor was long, black, sleek, light, string-less. It was so lightweight that Olive barely made out the glass insulators on its body. Something about the device didn’t seem right, but Olive couldn’t put his finger on it.

Trystan, rather than being embarrassed or flustered at his gradual defeat, seemed to be utterly gobsmacked by Jin’s precision and clapped loudly whenever she’d obliterate one of his arrows.

It was ridiculous. Olive figured Trystan was a masochist.

“I don’t really mean focusing on my aunt or anything when I say that,” Claire added under his breath. “That’s not something you or I can do right now. Probably. Since we don’t even know what’s happening on that front. But maybe I could ask. Maybe she’d tell me.” He turned to Olive, smiling. “Playing the fool is the way to success.”

Olive glanced at him. “I can see that.”

The monks around the range started clapping and cheering.

Jin had won, obviously.

The saint candidate turned on her heels, aimed a mock gun in Olive’s direction, and winked— “Bang!”

***

Olive regretted his decision to confront Cadence as soon as he did it. As usual, Olive found that his words were not as carefully chosen as Atienna’s and his thoughts not as collected as Werner’s. And so, he ended up saying something he didn’t mean:

“Aren’t you supposed to be good at reading people? It’s pretty obvious to me that Werner cares more about you than Alma does—if she even cares about you at all.”

And thus, as expected, Cadence completely snapped. She tore into him, dug out the tiny feelings he kept to himself, and laid them out to light.

It was embarrassing—the fact that Cadence could see through him so well. It hurt—the fact that Cadence knew what words would hurt him and said them anyways.

But she was right. It was stupid. How could he even think that the other five were anything remotely like family to him? They weren’t even friends. And that truth stung. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was what Cadence had done.

As his shouting match with Cadence reached its climax, Atienna synchronized with them both and intervened. She looked Cadence’s image right in the eye and slapped her hard. Cadence’s synchronization with him faded after that, but not before Olive managed to catch a rather disturbing look of hurt satisfaction flash across Cadence’s face.

Atienna remained with him several minutes afterwards. They didn’t exchange many words and refrained from speaking about what had occurred. However, just before Atienna departed, she placed a hand on his cheek and said, “You’re important to me, Olive. And that’s enough for me.”

The relief Olive felt at her reassurance was just as embarrassing as Cadence calling him out, and he could not reciprocate Atienna’s words.

Lavi came to him a while afterwards and seemed concerned about the lack of synchronization meetings. She wasn’t truly connected to him, Olive knew, so she wasn’t aware of what had happened between Werner and Cadence. As always, Lavi tried to get to the bottom of what had occurred, but he brushed her worries away.

It wasn’t something she needed to deal with, he told himself. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust her. Not at all.

Still, despite everything that had happened, Olive absolutely refused to mope around and to spend the day rolling around in bed. And so, right after his confrontation with Cadence, he rinsed his face in his bathroom sink and headed out with Trystan in search of Claire.

There were Sagittarian texts that needed to be translated, after all.

Olive found Claire and his masked guard Felix standing stiffly in front of the library’s doorway. The two were conversing with a duo standing at the threshold there. A woman and a man. The woman had short black hair that came up to her ears and had on a pair of circular glasses. Just by looking at her, Olive could tell that she was mean. There was something in her eye that just glinted viciousness. The man, on the other hand, had a mess of spiky dark hair and drooping eyes that made him look half asleep.

The woman locked eyes with Olive and glowered.

“Who’s that foreigner?” she snapped in some dialect of Sagittarian that Cadence knew. “You keep bringing people who aren’t of Sagittarian blood into our traditions. Don’t you have a sense of pride? First you bring a foreigner to be your vassal and now—”

Felix stiffened.

“Sister, I understand your concerns but although Felix may not have the blood of the Seong Clan running through his veins,” Claire responded politely, “his heart is Seongese through and through. He has spent all but five years of his life serving me, and he is one of my people. I would appreciate you treating my people with the same amount of respect you treat me with.”

Which apparently is none, Olive thought.

“Come on, Mai,” the spiky-haired man said from beside the woman. “Give Haneul a break, would you? We’re all here for the same thing.”

“Unlike that one, Kai,” Mai clarified, “you will pass your Conducting Exam with flying colors.”

“You doubt my sister’s prowess still, I see,” Claire said, smiling thinly.

“You’re ridiculous. He’s a disgrace—” Mai stopped short, sending a glare in Olive’s direction. “Why is that foreigner looking at me like that?”

“The foreigner’s name is Olivier Chance,” Olive responded in the dialect they were speaking as he joined their circle. He gave her a well-aimed look of disinterest. “Ariesian prince.” He nodded at Trystan who trailed behind him. “This is Trystan, my royal guard.”

Mai stiffened, looked him over, and then dipped into a deep bow. “I—my apologies, Prince Chance. I didn’t realize it was you. I heard rumors but…” She cleared her throat. “That aside, my name is Liuxing Mai of the Xing Clan. The man beside me is my younger brother: Liuxing Kai.”

Kai dipped into a bow too, looking more amused than anything else.

Olive arched a brow. “‘Liuxing’—oh, I recognize that surname. You were the group that went to Virgo in search of aid during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict, right?” He turned to Claire. “Haneul here came to Aries and managed to get my uncle and aunt to approve of his request within days. How did it go for you again?”

Mai’s face deepened red as she rose from her bow. “Our initial requests for aid were declined but subsequently Virgo did offer their assistance—”

“Right.” Olive shrugged. “But that was separate from your personal request, right?”

Mai’s face reddened further.

For once, Felix gave him a look of appreciation. Claire, on the other hand, had a careful expression of calm indifference folded across on his face. But Olive had seen it already—Claire’s brief smirk was undeniable.

“Woah, look at this!” came a familiar sing-song voice from down the hall. “All my favorite family members and favorite people gathered all in one spot.”

Olive grimaced and turned to find Jin casually strolling down the open hall towards them. Mai, Kai, and Felix dipped into bows at her approach. Jin merely offered a half-hearted, two-fingered salute at them in turn.

“So, Kai, you really going to take your State Conducting Exam at the end of this week?” Jin asked. “Coming here to cram right before?”

“That’s how Mai’s calendar is looking,” Kai replied. “Two Conductors capable of ascending the throne for the Xing Clan is better than one.”

“Mhm. Anyway, that’s when Eunji is taking it too, right?” Jin inspected them all from beneath her sunglasses. “All the clans will be watching closely because of that, huh?” She cracked a grin. “I’ll be watching too, of course.”

Claire and Mai exchanged a look and stiffened together.

“Really?” Claire pressed. “You’re coming to Ophiuchus too?”

“Of course! I wanna see you kiddos complete the State Conducting Exam.” Jin flashed a grin. “Besides, I have a feeling it’s going to be an explosive event.”

***

In between his time spent at the temple’s archives, Olive often went to observe the monks practicing with their conductors in the open courtyard that extended out just behind the library. He had discovered this courtyard during his second night at the library after looking out the leftwing window. The courtyard was large, square, and laid with a network of crisscrossing tiles that formed the image of a lotus. Barely. He had to squint to really see it.

Usually when the monks concluded their practice and emptied the field, Olive would take their place and try to emulate some of their motions. He often requested for Trystan to remain within the library so he could have the entire square to himself and to not risk Trystan being somehow caught in a crossfire. Trystan had reluctantly agreed but always kept a watchful eye on him from the second-floor window of the library facing the courtyard.

And so, right after Olive’s awkward conversation with Claire and his half-siblings, Olive decided to put reading texts aside and took to the courtyard instead. Trystan took to his perch in the library window. The monks were nowhere to be seen this time around, however, and Olive started off on his own.

As usual, his first ten conducting attempts ended with small sparks of vitae that puttered out into weak flame that spiraled out lazily and died quickly. Too weak. It was always either too weak or too strong whenever he tried to conduct.

The smell of burning flesh and the sobbing Sagittarian assassin abruptly flashed into his mind.

Olive grimaced and shook his head. He could never rein it in the way he wanted to.

He flicked his hand again to dispel the memory. Another poor spark and sputter.

If only he could achieve that sort of freedom air Elementalists had when conducting, Olive thought to himself, then maybe—

A clap resounded through the open square.

Olive stiffened and surveyed his surroundings. He glanced up at Trystan cautiously. The man was frowning from his post at the window and staring down and out towards an open hallway that ran at Olive’s right. Olive followed Trystan’s gaze and swallowed. Ilseong Jin was watching him from the walkway there. She was leaning against one of the pillars supporting the roof with arms crossed. Her bow conductor was slung over her back.

“Wow,” Jin said, singsong as she stepped out from the hall and carelessly skipped across the small stream that ran just beside it. After shaking off the water from her pants legs, she came to a stop in front of him and grinned. “I clapped because it felt like the right thing to do, but that was kinda sad.”

Olive tensed as he felt the familiar ominousness swirl at the pit of his stomach. “A lot of people must have said that to you, huh?”

“Yeesh, kiddo.” Jin sighed. “You have more salt in you than there is in the Piscese Ocean. Anyway, you looked like you needed help so I thought I’d—”

“Maybe you should get your prescription checked,” Olive said, gesturing to her sunglasses. “You’re seeing things that aren’t there.”

Go away. Go away.

Even with Trystan watching over his shoulder, Olive felt uneasy.

“Well, I’m seeing it pretty clearly, kiddo. You have issues conducting, don’t you? Without a conductor, I mean. Need a tip—”

“No.”

“Yeesh, kiddo—for real?” Jin chuckled. “At least let me lay my case first: I’ve read them. Pema’s books. The old monk’s sister. The one who conducted without a conductor. I read all of ‘em.”

Olive tensed.

“You wanna know a tidbit of what she wrote in there?” Jin grinned. “Just say please. I won’t tell anyone that I told you. We don’t want to both get into legal trouble, do we?”

Olive remained silent.

“Oh, fine, whatever. I’ll tell you anyways.”

Again, Olive remained silent.

“You say you’re not conducting with a conductor, but you are,” Jin said, tapping his chest. “Your entire body is the conductor. Your blood vessels and veins are the insulators. Your heart—your soul—is the conducting core. You get the picture, right?”

Olive slapped her hand away but digested the information she’d given him. That was very unusually backwards thinking. Conceptually, it seemed ridiculous.

Jin grinned, tucking her hand in her pocket. “Another tip: you shouldn’t hold back in anything you do. The more you try to control something, the harder it gets to control. Just like the more you try not to think of something, the more you think about it. Regrets hold you back—even in conducting.”

“Are you going to monologue again?”

“I’ll save my monologue for later.” Jin shrugged. “Anyway, what do you plan to do about the State Conducting Exam? The practical part, I mean. Since you can conduct without a conductor—well, that’s gonna draw a lot of unwanted eyes, you know?” She unfastened her conductor and twirled it in her hands. “Why don’t you try making something that looks like a conductor and use that? You look smart enough to do it.”

“For someone who says they’re on neutral ground, you’re giving me a lot of advice.”

Jin grinned thinly.

A cluster of monks started walking along the hall behind them and caught Olive’s attention. The group passed by slowly without acknowledging them. A particular ‘monk’ caught Olive’s attention—P.D. Oran. The man kept his head ducked low as he walked by with the group and kept his eyes glued to the ground. For his sake, Olive looked away.

“Ah, there he is,” Jin said singsong. She smiled back at Olive, waved her hand lazily through the air, and departed after the group of monks.

Olive waited until she disappeared before relaxing somewhat. Shivering his uneasiness away, he returned his attention to the task at hand and extended his arm out in pensive thought. Conducting without a conductor without restraint seemed impossible. But thinking of himself as a ‘conductor’ rather than a ‘Conductor’… It was a ludicrous idea, definitely, but…

He scanned the courtyard quickly. No one nearby. No one to be harmed.

His heart hammered in his chest as he closed his eyes and extended his hands outwards further. He pictured the components of a conductor in his mind’s eye. The insulator, the conductor core, the connecting tubes. His veins and blood vessels, his heart, his body. He pictured the vitae particles, the carbon atoms, the oxygen atoms—

The Sagittarian assassin’s burnt body flashed into his mind, but instead of shoving it away, he allowed it to pass.

—He then pictured the hum of the conducting core, the beat of his heart, and the culmination of atoms and particles into an explosive wreath of flame. Just this once. No restraint.

This is stupid, he thought. And then he flicked his wrist. The familiar spark of heat tickled his fingertips, and a gust of warmth flushed the front of his body.

Olive cracked open an eye.

A wreath of crimson flame swirled in front of him, twirling into the figure-eight shape he’d pictured in his mind. Nausea built up at the pit of his stomach at the smell of smoke that followed the ignition, but Olive was too flabbergasted to even register it.

Ridiculous. It couldn’t be that simple, could it?

He closed his eyes, imagined himself as a conductor, flicked his wrist again. When he opened his eyes, he found the flames dancing in a circle before him—once again just as he’d pictured. He chuckled nervously and did it again and again and again. Each time, the crimson flames obeyed.

Olive wanted to desperately synchronize with the others to show them all what he’d just learned, but he restrained himself as Cadence’s words rattled through his mind. Instead, he went through the motions for several hours before the usual fatigue that followed excessive vitae usage consumed him. Afterwards, he wiped the sweat from his brow, fell back onto the ground, and chuckled again despite himself as he watched the clouds pass overhead.

State Conducting Exam at the end of the week?

Focusing on the things you can do,” Claire had said.

That didn’t sound too bad.

But then, the knowledge of the Specialist children being sold by the Campanas suddenly bled into Olive’s mind from Cadence’s end.

9.2: Olive’s Naivety (Sapienza)

Re-cap: 

Seemingly far away from ELPIS’s machinations, Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance travels to the Bodhi Temple of Sagittarius in an attempt to study for his State Conducting Exam and in hopes of learning more about his sister’s ghostly condition. He makes a deal with Sagittarian Prince Claire Yuseong to help “protect” the former’s own sister from rival clans in exchange for access to the temple and aid in translation of the Sagittarian texts. On the way there, Claire reveals that he too is a True Conductor. 

Bodhi Temple, Sagittarius

As the air v-tram descended through the clouds, the extravagance of Bodhi Temple’s square arches became revealed. They rose tall and black against the brown peaks of the mountains and stood over a large stone path that wound up the mountainside. At the end of the stone path was a large brass door fitted in-between two mountain peaks. It loomed so tall that even from where Olive stood in the boxcar, he couldn’t see over its top.

When the tram docked at the near-empty sky v-tram station and Olive realized the distance between the station and the temple gate, he nearly climbed right back into the boxcar.

But then the other five flashed into his mind. At the thought of them, Olive shoved away his complaints. His problems were minuscule compared to the problems they were facing. He didn’t deserve to complain.

But Eunji voiced her complaints instead—

“It’s so far! Claire, you said it was only ten minutes from the station!”

Claire simply swiveled around and buttoned up his sister’s coat with a beam. “It is if you put your back into it!”

Eunji scowled before glancing at Olive, straightening herself, and nodding her head. “Let’s go then.”

What a weird girl.

They began to slowly, painfully wind their way up the stone path to the looming gate. The steps were wide and far apart, almost as if they’d been designed for giants. They were in good condition, however, and were clear of debris. Cared for tenderly.

They reached the top of the staircase after an unsaintly amount of time, and if Olive were not so bogged down by exhaustion, he might have marveled at how titanic the gates truly were. They seemed to scratch the sky.

“I know, right?” Claire hummed as he walked up and rapped on the door thrice. The metallic bongs ran up the door’s belly and bled out into an echo in the surrounding air.

When the door creaked open, they were met with a gust of pleasantly warm air, a soft glow of yellow light, and an army of bald men and women all wearing deep dark blue robes. An older man wearing a beaded necklace headed the group and seemed to evaluate them in the silence.

Monks…? Intimidating monks.

Claire, Eunji, Soha, Felix, and Claire’s other guards dipped into deep bows and were given bows of equal depth in turn. When the older monk turned his eyes onto Olive, Olive quickly dipped into a bow too and watched from the corner of his eye as Trystan mimicked the behavior. When Olive straightened himself, he found that all of the monks were returning the gesture.

It felt natural—being bowed at. And Olive hated himself for feeling this way.

“This is my friend,” Claire said to the old monk in Seongese, gesturing to Olive. “Olivier. I was hoping you could offer him hospitality. He’s studying for the State Conducting Exam like Eunji. He heard the rumors about the Bodhi Temple’s great library and wants to read some of the great texts.”

The old man studied Olive carefully.

Appearances.

Olive straightened himself and stood a bit taller.

“There are more details, of course,” Claire continued, “but I believe that may be better discussed privately.”

The old man broke out into a smile and nodded before speaking in Common: “Of course, of course. We are not ones to deny those who seek knowledge to improve themselves. Come in, come in.”

The sea of monks parted forming a straight path for them to enter. Claire, Soha, Felix, and the other Seongese guards entered without hesitation. Olive followed suit with hesitation and with Trystan at his feet.

What lay beyond the gate was a large stone courtyard populated with small, well-kept gardens. The courtyard seemed to extend for a sizable distance and a handful of robed men and women paced in the background. Beyond them stood pagodas interconnected by roofed but open halls that were reinforced by wooden beams. A small stream ran along the outside of the halls, and it pooled into a central pond that was littered with lotus flowers. Surrounding the pond were a cluster of monks who sat cross-legged and closed-eyed. Meditation, maybe. Olive wasn’t too familiar with the idea.

They were led into a large dining hall where a handful of monks were already seated at wooden tables that ran long, low, and parallel.

Olive was ushered to a table by Claire who then ordered some of his guards to bring them food. Trystan sat to Olive’s right, stiff, unmoving, awkwardly rubbing his fingers along the conductor at his side. Eunji who sat on Claire’s left kept glancing past Claire towards Olive himself. Whenever Olive would look at her, she would flush and look away.

Seeming to not be aware of this interaction, Claire happily accepted a bowl of rice porridge from his guards and started digging in. Claire’s guards soon followed suit, removing their masks to enjoy the meal.

Soha and Felix were the only two of Claire’s guards who were seated with them given the crowdedness of the halls. The duo sat directly across from them; and although Soha was freely enjoying her meal without her mask, Felix had barely lifted his mask enough to feed himself.

He most likely had some complex, Olive figured.

Olive stared down at his own rice porridge as he listened to others downing their food.

It was peaceful. Like at Claire’s villa before the assassins had attacked—

At the thought of the young assassin’s charred body, Olive’s stomach churned. Then came the memories of the corpses that had been laid out in front of Maria, of Kalama’s body, of the peacekeepers strewn about on the floor of the detention center, of the knife that had emerged from the mayor candidate’s back as Theta looked on calmly, and of Alice sitting bound to the chair.

Grimacing, Olive set down his spoon.

“It’s a waste if you don’t finish that,” came a voice in Common diagonally across from him. A man.

Keeping his frown in place, Olive gave the nosey man a disinterested look. “It’s weird if you watch people eat.”

The man had wispy blond hair and gray eyes. Obviously not of Sagittarian descent. He was, however, dressed in a robe like all of the other monks. The wrinkles lining his brow and sagging his cheeks betrayed his age and gave him a sagely appearance as if highlighting his monkliness.

He looked a bit familiar, Olive realized as he inspected the man further. Something about him was…

As Olive searched his memory and the memories of the other five to put a name to the man’s face, it suddenly clicked. Not only had Olive seen this man’s face before, but so had Atienna, Werner, and Jericho. They had all seen his face printed on the back cover of numerous textbooks on vitae theory.

Olive gaped. “You… are you P.D. Oran? You wrote all of those books about the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis!”

The smiling man’s lips drooped down immediately, and his eyes went wide. He gaped like a fish before leaping up from the table and dashing out the hall without another word.

“Wait!” Olive stammered, shooting up to a stand.

“It is best to leave him be,” came a voice from behind in Common

Turning his head, Olive found the old man who had greeted them at the doors standing there with a whimsical smile.

“Some people come here for knowledge to improve the outer world,” the old man said. “While others come for knowledge to improve the inner world.”

So basically Oran had issues, Olive surmised. Probably due to all of the backlash the man had received following his publication supporting the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. The publication had practically murdered his career. Gaining infamy for being associated with just one thing was terrible—Olive knew the feeling well.

Feeling a bit guilty for calling the man out, Olive sank back down. He was startled to find no one staring. All the monks merely continued to mind their own business. It was a relief.

“Claire has informed me of your situation,” the old monk continued. “And I would be happy to provide some help.” He inclined his head. “My name is Tenzin, and I am what you would call the ‘head monk’ of this temple. You would be Olivier? If you’d like, I can give you an overview of what this temple can provide for you in your particular pursuit.”

Olive glanced at his still full bowl of porridge before nodding slowly and rising back up to a stand. “I’d like that… Thank you.”

Trystan followed suit but Tenzin held up a halting hand. “I believe it will better benefit Olivier if I am able to speak to him alone. The more people present, the more we tend to conceal ourselves.”

Olive hated proverbs.

Regardless, he gave Trystan a curt nod, and that was that.

***

Olive followed the monk through a maze of paper-door-lined hallways before he was led into what he presumed was the man’s office. It was rather plain and empty with only two cushions set to the side of a low wooden table. The only decorations consisted of a scroll splashed on with black-inked characters hanging on the back wall and two bamboo plants placed in opposite corners.

“Claire tells me that you can conduct without using a Conductor,” the monk said as soon as he seated himself at the table.

Well, that was one way to start a conversation.

“I’m glad… he keeps his mouth shut,” Olive grumbled, following suit. The ability wasn’t something he was particularly hiding, but it unnerved him to have it pointed out so readily. Still, Olive figured that if anyone needed to keep their mouth shut, it was himself.

“I have only seen one other person with the ability to do that,” the monk said casually.

Olive startled.

The monk grinned. “Well, that got your attention, young one.”

The fact that the man didn’t sound condescending irked Olive but he remained silent, waiting.

“Her name was Pema. She was an air Elementalist Conductor and a monk here,” Tenzin explained. “She was also my sister. And… she was a failed saint candidate.”

A saint candidate…? A failed one. Like Lavi.

Olive felt the hairs on his back rise as he digested this information.

“I believe she began to show the ability shortly after returning back from Ophiuchus after failing the saint candidate initiation ceremony. This was before the war broke out, of course. All of us at the temple were intrigued at her ability, but we didn’t actively question it. Earthly matters like that don’t pertain to the pursuits we have here.” Tenzin hummed. “Still, she told us that it was a confidential matter, and we were to keep it a secret lest we create a buzz within the Monadism community.”

And the old man was telling him?

Again, Olive kept his mouth shut.

“She didn’t stay in the temple long after she returned. She renounced us and began traveling the world.” He stroked his chin. “She kept a journal of her travels. It’s likely she may have detailed her experiences with the conducting oddity there. After her death, her journals were stored in the archives of our great library here.”

Olive perked up at this, leaning across the table. If his conducting ability really was connected to Lavi who was a failed saint candidate then maybe—

“Of course, you would have to have a State Conducting License to access her journal.”

“What…?” Olive couldn’t help but scowl. “I thought Ophiuchus didn’t step foot in here.”

“They don’t,” Tenzin replied. “There are things that Ophiuchus does as a peacekeeping organization that I don’t agree with, but using the license as a key to the gate of knowledge is not one of those things. If one is not prepared for it, one will be overwhelmed by knowledge and be unable to make use of it. That is dangerous for not only oneself but for those one keeps close.”

“So you’re saying a slip of plastic is the key to wisdom?”

The monk chuckled. “I don’t believe I’ve said anything about wisdom. But the license is a badge showing the hard work and effort you have put into your pursuit of knowledge. It proves that you have gone out of your norm of comfortability to gain it. That is the first step. And things must always be taken one careful step at a time or one will surely miss something important.”

Heart sinking, Olive frowned. “Is that a proverb?”

Tenzin smiled. “When you’ve completed your State Conducting Exam, you’re free to come back here and read her entries.”

Letting out an internal sigh, Olive averted his gaze. “Thanks. That’s really generous of you.”

“Of course, completing the exam is one thing. Passing it is another,” the monk continued. “Feel free to access the books on the lower levels of our library. There are books even on those levels that you will not find anywhere else in Signum.”

This time Olive bowed his head. “Thank you.”

***

Atienna accompanied Olive frequently on his first several days of rounding the archives. Whenever he’d pluck a particularly old-looking book off the shelf, he’d be overwhelmed with the urge to run his fingers along its leather bindings and leaf through its pages to breathe in its musty scent. Atienna would appear beside him smiling pleasantly during these times, and he’d find himself treating the texts rather gingerly in her presence.

Olive couldn’t comprehend how Atienna could be so calm with everything going on in her end of things. Maybe she just wasn’t thinking about it? Averting her eyes? No, she’d renounced that months ago. Whatever it was that she was doing to maintain ease, he wished he could do the same. Eventually, however, Atienna stopped reaching out for synchronization whenever he’d come to the archives and that left him alone on many nights with just Claire, Felix, and Trystan.

A majority of the texts in the archives were written by the monks themselves. Some texts dated back several centuries, but Olive presumed even older texts were located in the upper areas sanctioned off by the monks. Areas only accessible to State Conducting Licensees.

Similarly to the royal libraries back in New Ram City, texts that were in those sanctioned levels were not allowed to be brought down from them. On Cadence’s suggestion, Olive had tried to get Trystan to sneak out books from one of the upper floors but that had only ended with a lecture from both Werner and an intimidatingly muscular monk.

Regardless, the basic texts and manuscripts that Claire was able to translate for him were useful. It seemed as if the monks at the Bodhi Temple viewed vitae similarly to how Virgoans viewed it. As a cycle of vitae ebb and flow, of life and death, over and over again. The concept of reincarnation was thrown around several times, although it was spoken about in a sense of a ‘universal’ reincarnation. And Olive had no clue what that meant.

Some of the texts on vitae theory dipped into philosophical musings that Olive could barely wrap his mind around. What was the point of using flowery paragraphs when getting to the point just took three words? Unfortunately, Werner and Jericho had informed him that the written portion of the exam did contain questions regarding different theories of vitae. So flowery paragraphs, it was.

Which was unfortunate.

Olive despised vitae theory.

At least in conductor engineering books, everything was concrete and quantified. Numbers, variables, parameters. What was fact versus what was error.

‘How many joules of vitae will be produced by a conductor when it contains an insulator with a diameter of 2.5 cm and a conducting core capacitor capable of allowing a current of 6.7 x 10^7 vitae particles?’— Easy.

‘Using the most widely accepted school of thought, soft vitae and hard vitae are best used by what type of Conductors?’ —Who the hell knew.

Damn.

Olive wondered briefly how Eunji was doing. She had been whisked away with her guards and Soha after their first dinner here, and he hadn’t seen either since. He wondered if she was struggling as much as he was.

Frankly, part of Olive wanted to see if Werner or Jericho would be willing to synchronize with him while he took the written portion to feed him answers, but another part of him wanted to prove to them that he could score high on his own. To impress them.

It was embarrassing to think about.

Mulling about these things to himself as he sat at a moonlit table in the library alongside Claire and Trystan, Olive continued to read Claire’s written translations of an encyclopedia on vitae theory.

About an hour had passed before he finished dissecting the translations. And when he turned to see what else Claire had managed to translate for him during the half hour, he found the Sagittarian prince face down on the table and faintly snoring. Across from him Trystan was also out cold, head hanging back against the chair. Felix, on the other hand, stood rigidly behind Claire, arms crossed.

“I’m going to the restroom,” Olive said, rising from his seat. He nodded in Trystan’s direction. “Just in case he wakes up and panics.”

Felix didn’t give any indication he’d heard so Olive shrugged and wound his way around the tables to the library’s exit. The tables that had been crowded earlier were now empty, leaving the area with a sense of loneliness. As Olive inspected the tables half-heartedly, his eye caught onto a lone book resting on one of the tables.

On a whim, Olive went over to examine it but then hesitated when he saw what was printed in the corner on its cover. ACCESSIBLE TO STATE CONDUCTING LICENSEES ONLY.

Who had left this textbook out? And how had they gotten it out from the upper sections of the library?

His eyes darted down to the title.

Conducting Variants: Vitae, Energy, Life, Blood. Soul? Notes by Pema.

The head monk’s sister.

Olive’s heart skipped a beat and he held his breath as he scanned the area.

No one around.

Olive grabbed the book and flipped it open to a page that had been marked with dog ears.

The text was scribbled out in curling Common:

When the science of conducting was in its initial stages of development, various methods to conduct vitae were employed in an attempt to utilize it to its full capacity. The final form of conducting seen today was achieved through centuries of trial and error, and it’s curious to look back on the failed and discarded attempts of conducting. And to make fun of those idiots.

The irreverent comment jarred Olive but he pushed forward reading.

One method of vitae conducting that has been long since abandoned forgotten is one that directly harvests the vitae particles found in the bloodstream. Due to this peculiarity, this method was available only to those who were able to utilize vitae intraneously. Instead of separating vitae particles from the body as is done with present-day conductors for intraneous users, this form of conducting bypasses the separation leading to a more intimate usage of vitae. This method may be more ‘powerful’ than modern conducting but it’s also more taxing on the Conductor due to the higher purity and density of the vitae particles being expelled. Also—blood loss. Duh. 

This method was developed by Ophiuchus centuries ago and has been forgotten centuries ago. As of this journal entry, you can’t even call it a myth anymore. It’s nonexistent. 

Omicron and Theta’s bloodied hands immediately flashed into Olive’s mind.

Was that the type of conducting that they used…? What in the world…? This was too much of a coincidence.

With a chill seizing his spine, Olive threw the book back onto the table and quickly made his way out of the library. As soon as he stepped outside into the open hall, he was greeted and calmed by the cold, cool night air. A full moon was bleaching everything in light blue, and the silence was crept on by the trickling stream that ran alongside the hall.

Olive let out a quiet breath and prepared to start forward. But then he froze.

A woman dressed in a crisp black and white suit stood in his path. The blue moonlight cascading down in between the wooden beams of the hall fell in separated layers across her face and acted as a spotlight on the white band that glowed on her arm.

What was a peacekeeper doing here? No—why on earth was she wearing sunglasses?

Despite the time of day, a pair of circular shades perched on the woman’s nose. They were jet black—the same color as her rope of dark hair.

Something wasn’t right.

Olive took a step backwards as a frigid cold dripped down from the back of his neck to his toes. A numbing dread seized his limbs that didn’t allow him to move any further.

Something about her wasn’t right. Something about her made his skin crawl.

“Hey, kiddo,” she called out to him in Common. “You’re the Ariesian prince, right? Seen you in the papers. If you’re not him, you’re one helluva look alike.”

Olive’s heart skipped a beat at her baritone voice. “… Who’s asking?”

A white smile cracked across the woman’s face. “Ilseong Jin of the Seong Clan. Saint candidate of Sagittarius. Saint of the Arrow, Saint of Direction.”

What… A saint candidate? Here? Wh—

In the blink of an eye, Jin closed the distance between them, gliding over the lotuses that grew up onto the floorboards from the stream. She stopped only inches away from him, hands in pockets, as she inspected him over her sunglasses.

“Cool, suave, handsome, never misses a shot, war hero,” Jin continued sing-song. “I could list more details if you’d like. I do like talking about the many talents I’ve honed over the years. My life is practically a shooting star.”

Olive pulled back, heart hammering.

Jin grinned. “You’ve met Leona I’m assuming? During your whole assassination thing couple months back?”

Olive frowned, trying his best to keep his voice even. “Leona? You mean the chairwoman of the ELPIS Department? She spoke to me a little after everything. Don’t remember really. Not interested in stuff like that.”

Jin rolled her neck. “Yeah, well if you’ve seen her, I can sorta understand why you’re so unfriendly since I’m a saint candidate too. She can be a B, right?”

Olive resisted doing a double-take and peered behind the woman. An escape route. Be casual. “So saint candidates aren’t cliquey?”

Jin barked out a laugh before waving him off. “Sure we are, but even I can clearly see that Leona’s got an inferiority complex—or is that a superiority complex? Well, whatever. She’s got one of them.”

“Good to know,” Olive mumbled, stepping around her.

Jin side-stepped along with him, blocking his path. “But enough about that. What’s the Ariesian prince doing up here at our sacred temple? Huh. You look taller in the papers.”

Olive’s heart skipped a beat again, and his nerves began to run his mouth. “What’s a peacekeeper doing at a sacred temple? Thought peacekeepers were all about cultural competency. I’m a prince, like you said. Don’t you think you’re being too casual with me even if you’re a so-called saint candidate?”

Jin’s smile thinned. “Your sister was a saint candidate, right?”

Olive’s heart began to thunder.

“A ‘failed one,’ I mean,” Jin amended. “Allegedly died in the Tragedy of Aries? Ironic for the Saint of Ashes, yeah?”

It was like a punch to the gut. A terrible combination paired with the ominous dread that was already wrapped around his stomach.

“People skills must not be a criterion to get saint candidacy,” Olive returned. The words slipped out before he could stop them, and he felt his limbs tightening in anticipation at the expected retribution. When he looked up at the woman, however, he found that Jin was still grinning.

“I’m not the type to believe the newspapers. About your sister, I mean. You know what they say about the media.” Jin leaned in close and stared directly into him. “Does ‘syzygy’ mean anything to you?”

What…?

“What’s a syzygy?” Olive asked, hoping he was channeling enough of Cadence to sound convincing.

“Hm, so you know it but you don’t know it.” Jin traced his features with her eyes. “Ever heard of Kovich?”

“The author of the Endless Cycle…?” Olive recalled from Atienna’s bookish conversation with Cvetka.

“Smart kid,” came Jin’s unwanted praise. She pulled back, hand on hip, poked a finger at his chest. “It’s the end of that.”

What did that even mean?

Olive arched a brow. “What? What are you talking about? If you want to start a book discussion then there’s a library back there—”

“Do I have to spell it out for you, kid?” Jin sighed. “What is the dictionary definition of a syzygy? ‘The lining up of celestial bodies’ aka stars. It’s just a fancy word. An analogy. Don’t remember who in the world thought it up, but basically…” She poked him in the chest again. “People like you are the stars that need to be lined up in order to make thathappen. That is, if Izsak was right about you being a True Conductor.”

Olive felt his blood run cold, felt nauseated and lightheaded.

“Ding, ding. Looks like I’m right,” Jin mused. “But don’t worry, kiddo. Izsak is locked up and isn’t rearing to kill you. And while Leona suspects you after that whole thing in New Ram City, she probably thinks that you’re something else. I won’t tell her either. Your secret is safe with me.”

Olive swallowed.

Who did Jin think she was fooling? And what did she mean by ‘something else’? And why was she talking to him about this? What did she want? Was she going to disappear him like the other True Conductors? What about the other five? What—

“It’s a shame what happened to Izsak,” Jin hummed. “I met him when he was just a kid like you. Saw him rise up to become the ‘Shepherd of Okor’ myself.”

“L… Like I said, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Olive managed, stepping around her again. “Syzygy? True Conductor? Izsak? I’m trying to focus on the State Conducting Exam here. And right now I just want to use the restroom—”

“Don’t you want to know what really happened to one Miss Princess Lavender Chance? I mean, she’s still floating around in there somewhere, right?”

Olive stopped short and turned. “How—”

Jin faced him with a grin. “I thought so. Dang, I’m smart. And you’re too honest, kiddo. People’ll see right through you if you don’t learn to think before you react.”

“Ollie. Stay away from her,” came a sudden whisper in his ear. “She doesn’t seem right. Please, Ollie.”

Olive glanced over his shoulder and found his sister standing just behind him. Her pale fingers were gripping the side of his arm, and she was glowering at Jin. Olive had never seen such a hostile expression on his sister’s face before, and it unnerved him.

“Is that why you’re here, kiddo?” Jin continued. “To search the temple records to see if you can find out anything about it?” A grin cracked across her face again, and she tapped her temple. “Come on, kiddo, use your head. Why’re you looking around for something like that when the answer is right in front of you?”

“Ollie…” Lavi pressed, tugging on his arm. “Please…”

Olive glanced back at Lavi, registered her crumpled expression of desperation and fear, and then took a step backwards.

“Look,” he said, placing his hand over his sister’s, “Jin, you must like hearing broken records because—again—I have no idea what you’re saying. I’m sure you’re enjoying your monologue but you should probably find another person who has a lot of time on their hands like you—”

“Come on. Stop with the charades. It’s kinda pathetic if you stretch it too far. Like I said, your secret is safe with me. And don’t look so scared, kiddo. Us saint candidates want to preserve True Conductors like yourself,” Jin said, once again closing the distance he had formed between them. “It’s really ELPIS y’need to look out for. They think that people like you need to die.”

Olive’s mind flashed to Francis—Theta—and then Omicron, Izsak, and Alice. And then Cadence and Jericho. And then Werner, Atienna, and Maria.

Olive paused, felt Lavi’s grip on his arm tighten. He hesitantly looked Jin over. “Let’s say I know what you’re talking about. Are you saying that you’re on my side? Because you’re a saint candidate…? And we’re important for the ‘syzygy’?”

Jin looked away and shrugged. “Well in the short run, yes. In the long run, no. But I’m personally trying to freestyle a bit now. Kinda tired of the whole duty and ceremony saint candidate thing—so, you do you. You’re on your own, kiddo.”

“You’re making it sound like that’s a bad thing.”

Jin barked out a loud and abrupt laugh. “Sorry. You’re really just so honest, kiddo. Earnest too. Maybe a bit stupid. Nah, just naive.”

It wasn’t the first time Olive had heard the word tossed around. Ever since leaving the royal palace, he started feeling that it was the most commonly used word in Signum. Back then, when he had been spending the months lounging around in the palace, he had thought he had known enough. Not everything. But enough. Enough to not try learning anything anymore. That was naive.

“At least that means I can still learn something,” Olive returned. “What does that make you?”

“Stupid, probably,” Jin popped.

The response again jarred Olive, and it took him a moment to relocate his train of thought. “So… who’s behind this whole syzygy thing? Is it… the saint candidates? A Monadism thing?”

Jin reached out and placed a hand on his head causing him to stiffen. “You were looking to skedaddle, kiddo, but you’re curious now, aren’t you? Anyway, if I gave you all the answers now then I’d have to listen to Leona’s ranting for the rest of this life. Besides, I’ve probably given you enough to chew on.”

“Why are you even… telling me this?”

Jin grinned, smile white in the blue light. “Why not? I mean… what are you going to even do about it?” There was a beat. “But… I’ll tell you this, kiddo, this whole rodeo’s been going on for a lot longer than you realize.”

What—

“Aunt Jiji!”

Startling, Olive whipped around to find Claire emerging from the library entrance while waving like a madman.

“‘Aunt’?”

“My favorite nephew!” Jin called back before amending, “Well, my only nephew, right?”

“What’re you doing here?” Claire asked, rushing up to her. “I thought you were in Ophiuchus!”

“I was just a minute ago,” Jin replied, giving the Sagittarian prince a cuff on the shoulder. “Thought I’d swing by.”

“Eunji will be so happy to see you!” Claire beamed. “She’s probably asleep already though, but…” He side-glanced at Olive and startled as if just noticing him. He gestured to Jin. “Oh, Ollie, this is my aunt! Jin!”

“I sort of figured when you shouted ‘Aunt Jiji,’” Olive mumbled, arms crossed, heart still thundering.

“Eunji’s studying for the Conducting Exam, right?” Jin popped, nodding at Claire. Her interest in him seemed to have waned, Olive realized, which came as a relief. She continued offhandedly, “Just a fair warning. Heard Kai and Mai Beijixing from the Xing Clan are coming up this way too. You should probably keep an eye out when you leave.”

“Oh, I know. I already prepared for that,” Claire said, side glancing at Olive. “But thanks for the heads up.” He beamed again, smiling with unusual earnesty.

Olive could see it now. The reason for why Claire had been so oddly defensive about saint candidates. It all dwindled down to family. Olive wondered if Claire’s aunt even knew of his status as a True Conductor.

And then, Olive thought of his own aunt sitting back on the throne back in New Ram City. Did he even cross her mind? Probably not. She was probably too busy doing queenly things to even think about him. Maybe even secretly relieved that he was gone. He wondered if the other five would think the same if their synchronization ended.

Olive shook his head. He needed to stop thinking like that. Especially right after a harrowing encounter.

“Yo.” Jin directed a nod behind Olive with a wave before dipping into a surprisingly deep bow. “I see you’re still kickin’.”

Still gripping his sister’s hand, Olive turned his head to find Trystan, Felix, and Tenzin standing behind him.

Tenzin bowed at Jin in return. “I see you’ve finally returned to the temple. What brings you here?”

“I was feeling a bit nostalgic,” Jin replied with a shrug. “And I’m looking for someone. An Ophiuchian special mission. Top secret.”

“Well, I hope the person you’re searching for is a willing person,” Tenzin replied. “Free will and choice are very important in life—in case you’ve forgotten the teachings of the temple since your pre-candidacy days.”

“I’ll ask politely,” Jin said. “Don’t worry.” She pointed loosely to the bow conductor at Trystan’s side. “I use one of those too. There’s an archery range around back, Mr. Bullseye. We should practice together. You don’t want to get rusty sitting around reading books all day, do you?”

Trystan frowned—at least until Olive whispered Jin’s identity into his ear—and then he bowed. “It would be an honor.”

Olive startled and tried to subtly shake his head to signal for Trystan to decline the offer. Trystan merely gave him a look of confusion. Typical.

While Claire and Jin began speaking animatedly with one other, Olive took the opportunity to slink away from them. He managed to get Trystan to follow suit and held his sister’s small hand tightly as they looped around the hallways. Olive separated from Trystan in the residential halls and slipped into the small bedroom he’d been provided for his stay.

As soon as he heard Trystan’s step recede from behind the doorway, he whipped around and gripped his sister’s shoulders tightly. He searched her face.

“W-What’s wrong, Ollie?” she stammered, worry creasing her brow.

His stomach twisted.

“Lavi…” Olive began after a second of hesitation. “Why did you want me to… stay away from Jin? How long were you watching?”

“I just have a bad feeling about her,” Lavi murmured. “That’s all… she doesn’t seem like a good person.”

Olive studied her, tightening his grip. “I… when you were… in Ophiuchus… for the saint candidate ceremony… did you…” He realized he didn’t even have a full grasp on what he wanted to ask her but managed, “A couple months ago… you said something about a ‘syzygy’ when I first started getting synchronized with the others. What did you mean? ‘The pulse of syzygy.’”

“Huh? Did I say that?” Lavi questioned, cocking her head. “I don’t remember ever saying that.” She peered into his face. “You don’t believe me? Everything’s really fuzzy, Ollie. I’m sorry but I don’t remember ever saying that—really. I was just so excited that we were talking to other people. You know I don’t pay attention to some of the things I say…”

“Lavi—”

A knock on the door drew Olive’s attention away, and when he looked back towards his sister she was gone. Letting out a sigh of frustration, Olive wrung his hands and made his way to the door. When he pulled it open, a smiling Claire stood waiting.

“What are you doing here?” Olive arched a brow, already pushing the door shut.

Claire wedged his foot in the doorway and pressed a finger to his lips. “I wanna talk to you about something. Just the two of us. Just for a minute. Come on.”

“Unconvincing argument.” But after a beat, Olive conceded and let the prince through.

Claire made himself at home, strolling in and inspecting the room before walking right out onto the balcony that opened up at the side of the far wall. Olive rolled his eyes and followed him outside.

The moon was still beating down harsh in the night sky, revealing the mountain range’s ruts and cliff faces in startling detail just as the sun would.

“You know, I never really wanted to be involved with politics,” Claire said when Olive fell into place beside him. His gaze was fixated on some far point beyond the tips of the mountains. “Never really wanted to be a prince either, but you can’t choose what you’re born as.”

Olive glanced at him unimpressed. “Wow. Your life sounds awful.”

“I know how that sounds.” Claire chuckled. “A lot of people would kill to be where I’m at.”

Definitely. Olive knew people probably thought similarly about himself.

“Good to know you’re at least a little self-aware,” Olive muttered. “Is that what you’re here to talk about? The monks would be better therapists than me.”

“No… that’s not it. I could tell that you were nervous about my aunt,” Claire replied. “She told you she was a saint candidate, didn’t she?”

“It was in her lengthy introductory speech.”

“Yeah, she can be like that…” Claire mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck. “I mean, she’s kind of earned the right to. If it weren’t for her becoming saint candidate, my clan would still be considered a lower-rung clan and we wouldn’t…” He trailed off.

Sounded complicated.

“Alright, I’m listening,” Olive grumbled. “If you want to tell me your backstory so much then let’s get to it.”

“Well, when you put it like that then I feel awkward.” Claire frowned. He held up a hand, stopping Olive short before he could retort.

Olive shut his mouth and waited.

After what seemed like half an hour, Claire finally spoke: “Haneul… my real name… it means ‘sky’ in Seongese but it can also mean ‘heaven’. My mother told me that the name chose me because ‘it was my destiny to bring the Seong clan to the heights of the heavens above all the other clans.’ That it was a name befitting an emperor.” A rare frown pulled down Claire’s lips, and he glared down into the darkness stretching below. He brightened a beat after and scoffed. “The sky is supposed to be free and open, but the name is so oppressive. Suffocating, you know? Can you even imagine a person like that? As an emperor ruling over all these clans? Having to watch their back all the time?”

Olive glanced at him. “Yeah, the way your government works sucks.”

“That’s exactly why I want to abolish that clan system in Sagittarius.” Claire chuckled again. “Well that’s not true. I just want to live in a place where I don’t have to worry about problems like that. Where my sister doesn’t. Where other people don’t. Everyone would just be free to do whatever they wanted without dealing with those kinds of expectations. The restrictions. The divisions.”

That was ridiculous, Olive thought. There was no way anybody could do something like that. People’s self-interest and greed would always get in the way. And even if someone were to achieve that, someone else would just undo everything further down the line.

“Anyways, I told my aunt Jiji I hated my name one day, and she just said, ‘Then why don’t you just change it’. Made me feel kinda stupid for not doing it before. And so I did. Chose ‘Claire’ because I thought it sounded cool. Like the Common word for clear.” Claire peered down into the cliff face below them. “Anyways, choosing my own name was the first step in all of this. And I wouldn’t have been able to do that without my aunt. She actually helped me a lot when I was younger…. so I’m basically asking you to give her a chance.”

So Jin meant a lot to Claire. And despite Claire’s slipperiness, he was still just a kid. What a pain. Still, averting your eyes from a problem did nothing.

And so, after a minute of agitated mulling, Olive informed Claire of the things Jin had said to him only half an hour prior. Syzygy. True Conductors. ELPIS. Saint candidates.

Claire digested the information silently with an unreadable expression. The quiet stretched long and thing before he finally spoke again. “Thank you… for telling me that. I… there’s probably an explanation…” He shook his head before leaning against the banister. “Syzygy…” He paused, lifted his head, and turned to Olive. “Wait… you said my aunt asked about your sister too, right? Why was that?”

Olive revealed the true reason for why he was pursuing a State Conducting License. The incident at the Tragedy of Aries. His sister’s failed saint candidacy. How her ‘spirit’ became visible to him afterwards. And how it could be connected to his ability to conduct without a conductor.

Claire ogled him afterwards. “That’s a pretty crazy backstory… I’ve never heard any True Conductors seeing ‘ghosts’ before so I don’t think it has to do anything with that.” After a pause, he said, “And you started being able to conduct without a conductor after that happened?” Another pause. Claire glanced over Olive’s shoulder. “And… does Lavi know anything about it?”

“She says she doesn’t.”

Claire considered his words before sighing. “So we both have family members who might not be trustworthy. Saint candidates…”

Olive frowned. “Don’t put my sister and your aunt in the same boat. My sister was a failed saint candidate so whatever it is—”

“—has to be something else?” Claire finished. “Maybe it is.” He straightened himself abruptly and began digging into his pocket. “Well, I wasn’t going to show this to you because it was risky for my circle but since we’re really being honest with each other now, I thought I’d show you. It might be useful for you in the future.”

Claire pulled out a narrow cylinder the size of his palm and gave it a twirl. Additional segments extended from each end of the device with the motion. Claire’s staff conductor.

“Why?” Olive asked plainly.

Claire whipped his conductor around once. Nothing happened. And then he whipped it around another time, sending out a cold, frigid wind speckled with blue lights. The twin movements seemed a bit familiar. Something scratched at the back of Olive’s mind—

Then came the snowflakes. They cascaded down onto them from the area where Claire had sent out his whip of wind. Although the snowflakes appeared normal at first glance, a closer inspection revealed them to be faintly glowing with blue vitae.

“Great, you can change weather patterns,” Olive stated, unimpressed. He caught a snowflake in his palm with disinterest. But as he watched a snowflake lose its glow as it melted, the realization slapped him hard. He turned to Claire in disbelief. “Are you saying that we can—”

An excruciating pain throttled through his core cutting him off short. Every limb in his body seized with agony, and he fell onto the floor with a thud.

“Ollie?!”

Ignoring Claire, Olive bared his teeth and reached out in the direction of the pain. He pulled himself along the invisible thread until the temple room faded away behind him and became replaced by an entirely different scene:

People screaming, people crying, people shouting, people running. Smoke clouded the air as they rushed around him—half of them tripping on the cobblestone ground that was laden with shattered pieces of brick and glass. At his right was a crumbled building still billowing out a steady stream of smog and dust.

The scent was nauseating, but—

Where was this?

Olive glanced to his left across the street and found a familiar high-rise building with a golden plaque at its front: Abaccio Hotel.

Gemini. The Twin Cities. Cadence or Werner.

Olive’s heart felt as if it were about to explode as he reached out for both of them in desperation. And then he saw it out of the corner of his eye—a flash of copper hair.

Cadence. She stood frigid amongst the chaos, seeming to not notice the bodies strewn around the floor nor the people running past her. As he tapped into his synchronization with her and met her gaze, he realized that she was not truly there either. Then that meant—

“I…” Cadence ran her fingers through her hair as she stared blankly past him. “It was an accident… I didn’t…”

Olive followed her gaze and the tug of pain down to the ground behind him. Only a couple of feet away amongst the rubble was a woman with curly black hair and porcelain skin.

Alma.

She was unconscious, but it appeared as if she was unharmed because right beside her—no, draped right over her protectively—was Werner. There were large pieces of brick, stone, and glass strewn over his normally immaculate military uniform and red was pooling beneath his head.

No…

Olive was at Werner’s side in an instant, grasping the man tightly.

“H-Help!” he stammered desperately to the people who he knew couldn’t hear him, to the people who probably wouldn’t help even if they could. “Help! Please!”

No.

Olive’s mind raced with memories of fire, screams, smoke, burning flesh, curling up into loneliness—

—and then came the memories of long-winded lectures, of the meetings that filled the spaces of emptiness between his studies, of the feeling of for once not being on the outside looking in, of being able to share thoughts that he’d kept to himself for years, of not having to face everything alone.

No.

A void was beginning to expand outwards from Werner’s body, and the surroundings around the man began to flicker and dim. Just like the void that had surrounded Jericho when he had been injured all those months ago. The blackness encroached quickly, stealing away the warmth that Olive still felt faintly seeping from Werner’s body. Their synchronization was weakening.

No.

Olive gripped onto Werner’s body like a life-line, holding with all he could onto their synchronization.

“Please, somebody—”

Werner was—

And then, Olive was back on the balcony in the Bodhi Temple on all fours. Claire was beside him but Olive paid him no mind. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Cadence’s image staring at him silent and pale. She had been desynchronized from Werner too. But—she was near Werner. She could help him. She had to. Werner was still alive, but he was hurt. Bad. Olive could feel it.

Werner. 

What had even happened?

The memory of the event Cadence and Werner had just experienced would not come to him. And then a cold, creeping realization dawned. The few times when there were gaps in the memories they shared despite synchronization were during overrides.

Torn between nausea and horror, Olive turned to Cadence and whispered, “Cadence, what… what did you do?”


“Yep, the saint candidate of Sagittarius would be me. What? Why I stepped down as chairman of the ELPIS Investigation Department? Dunno. I mean, it just got boring. ELPIS is just so old fashioned, you know? It gets repetitive. They just keep making the same mistakes over and over again. It’s not even a game of cat and mouse at this point. Hm, ‘what does that mean’? Well, I’ve given you enough to chew on, haven’t I? If you really want to know then why don’t you give the ELPIS Department a shot? Hell, maybe you’ll get my old spot”

Jin Ilseong, former head chairwoman of the ELPIS Investigations Department of Ophiuchus 

8.2: Olive’s Stagnation (Accelerazione)

Re-cap: 

The dominoes are beginning to fall. 

Olive has been in search of a Sagittarian translator and someone who could take him to the infamous Bodhi Temple in order to study for his State Conductor’s Exam when he suddenly overrode Werner and caused the man to order a retreat. He awakens from the override in the care of Prince of the Seong Clan of Sagittarius, Yuseong Claire.

Sihyeon Villa, Sagittarius

When Olive awoke on that cloudy afternoon, he knew that it was going to be a terrible day. There was a heaviness in his chest that squeezed tight—almost as if an anchor hooked onto his heart was dragging his entire body deeper, deeper down. With it weighing him down so heavily, the only thing he could was think. Think about the things he’d done the previous day—no, the previous week. Absolutely fruitless. Meaningless. Mistakes made. Nothing accomplished at all.

Dammit.

Olive curled into himself and tried to collect his thoughts—catch them—before they somehow slipped out to one of the others. It was times like these that he hated their connection the most. The vulnerability, the rawness—

Good morning! No—beautiful morning! Yes! It is a beautiful morning! The sun, the air! Something exciting will happen today! I can feel it!

The exploding shout came paired with a burst of heat against his face, a splash of cold water on his skin, the feeling of wet clothing clinging to his body, and—of course—a rush of feverish excitement. The first feeling was welcomed. The others, not so much.

Saints, Maria. Don’t just synchronize like that randomly. Ya nearly gave me a heart attack. 

Had Maria just attempted synchronization with all of them just to wish them a good morning?

But it is a very good morning. I wanted you all to experience it too!

Maria was crazy.

Rubbing his face, Olive forced himself up off his bed. He shivered and sauntered over to his bird cage to feed his bird and then stared out the paper window that opened up beside it. The cherry blossom flower petals from the tree outside had made it into the room and dusted the floor and the bird cage. His bird was busily collecting all of the petals into a corner.

Greedy bastard.

Olive glanced back out the window at the courtyard. There was a pond out there beyond the cherry blossom and persimmon trees. A small pavilion with curved up roofs floated on an island at the center of it, and it was surrounded by lotus flowers that bobbed up and down in the water.

It was peaceful.

He almost wanted to look at it forever. But he knew he couldn’t. He had to keep moving. So with a heavy sigh, he started his morning grooming.

When he finally made it outside of his room half an hour later, he was greeted by Trystan who was posted outside his door:

“Did you sleep well, Olivier? Good morning.”

Olive arched a brow at him. “What about you? You don’t need to be on me all the time especially since Claire has his guards all over this vacation home thing.”

“Yes, he has been hospitable but—”

Olive sighed. “Yeah, I know. It’s not like we can trust him completely, but since we’re here…”

Might as well take advantage of the situation. 

Trystan seemed to understand his point and nodded as they began to walk down the hall. “Prince Yuseong has invited you to breakfast again.”

The floors here were of polished wood. The estate, while consisting of only one floor, was expansive. Paper sliding doors lined the hall, and light from the outside seeped lazily through the square, white slots giving everything a hazy glow.

“The Sagittarian diet is very nutritious I’ve heard, so you should eat as much as you can to recover.”

Was Trystan a nanny or a guard at this point? He almost sounded like Werner minus the strictness.

Sounds like tall dark and handsome got promoted to nanny, came Cadence’s chirpy response. A light synchronization.

Olive gave a noncommittal grunt.

Trystan continued, “That may be a good time to test the waters with Prince Yuseong regarding—” He stopped short.

There was a girl halfway out of one of the sliding doors up ahead. She had round cheeks and jet-black hair that grew out to the sides of her ears. She was dressed in the formal, silk pink robe, but she was bare footed. She locked eyes with Olive.

Claire’s younger sister. Eunji.

Claire had introduced Olive to her over dinner the first night he had spent at this villa. And what an awkward dinner it was. The girl had bowed her head respectfully when Olive was introduced and then had proceeded to stare at him during the entire dinner. Lavi, who had appeared before Olive at the time, had gushed over the girl, floating over to her and asking her all sorts of things— “What’s your favorite color? Favorite book? Favorite animal?” Not that Eunji could hear her, of course. Olive supposed Lavi was excited to see someone closer to her age around. Before Olive could repeat any of Lavi’s questions to Eunji, however, the girl had excused herself from the table and had run off escorted by a flock of bodyguards.

A flock of bodyguards that was currently nowhere to be seen.

“What are you doing?” Olive asked plainly.

Eunji’s cheeks flushed. “I—I…”

A stampede of footsteps came from down the hall. Sagittarian guards. Eunji’s eyes widened, and she threw herself out the doorway without another word. A second later, a collection of twenty guards wearing masks of various colors and designs came pounding down the hall. Behind them were two unmasked women wrapped in light silken garments.

The entire flock, minus the two unmasked women, started off in the direction Eunji had disappeared to. Both women bowed before Olive and Trystan.

“I apologize if the young lady has disturbed you,” the younger woman said, dipping her head further. “She was at her daily lessons with her teacher but she suddenly ran off.”

“No need to apologize,” Olive grumbled. “It’s not like I need one… no need with the bowing either.”

“You are a friend of the prince,” the more elderly of the two said, “so you will be treated with respect.”

And what if that friend was royalty? Olive thought to himself.

It appeared as if none of the villa staff knew of his status as Ariesian prince. Not even Eunji did since Claire had merely introduced him as “my friend I met in New Ram City.” But Olive didn’t hate it. He had already gotten used to the feeling of not being recognized in the streets of Sagittarius—although he did hear a couple of pedestrians and some of Claire’s vassals occasionally say, “Doesn’t he look a bit like the Ariesian prince?” A welcomed experience.

“Alright then.” Olive shrugged, slipping past them with Trystan. “Good luck finding her.”

***

The dining room of Claire’s villa was spacious and lined with the familiar paper-sliding doors. A single square table with short legs sat at the center. Silken plush cushions were furnished at the sides of the table, and seated at one of those cushions was the Sagittarian prince of the Seong Clan, Yuseong Haneul. Aka, Claire.

There were two guards posted behind Claire. Familiar ones. Firstly there was the white masked Projector who nodded deeply upon Olive and Trystan’s arrival. Then there was the wooden-masked Conjuror who seemed to glower at them. If Olive recalled correctly, their names were Soha and Felix, respectively. They were the two vassals who had accompanied Claire to New Ram City, and they had been the ones who had attacked him on the night he had first met Claire. It had all been an act, but Olive still felt unnerved by them.

Claire gestured for them both to sit. Trystan, as usual, hesitated at the invitation. Olive, however, flopped down on the cushion chair and indicated for Trystan to do the same. After another reluctant pause, Trystan sat down but not before giving the two guards watchful looks.

“Your sister probably isn’t going to come for breakfast,” Olive said, glancing at the remaining open cushion seat. “It looked like she was trying to get as far away from here as possible. I can understand the sentiment.”

If Claire had heard the last part, he didn’t show it. “I’m sorry if she disturbed you. She has a habit of trying to escape the guards.” Claire offered an apologetic look, although Olive thought he saw some smugness there. “How are you feeling by the way?” He gestured to the steaming tea cups and the assortment of colorful side dishes of pickled vegetables set out on the table. “You should try some of the daikons, they help with digestion and have a lot of potassium. They’ll help you feel much better, I promise.”

“Thanks…”

“Anyway,” Claire continued, “I was just speaking with Felix here about how lucky it was that we came across you that day. I literally just decided to go to that bookstore on a whim, and, well, you said something about studying for the Conducting Exam over dinner, right, so—”

“What do you want from me, Claire?”

Claire paused mid-monologue and chuckled. “What do you mean?”

Olive could feel Cadence peering in. Despite his disappointment in her recent choices, he couldn’t help but feel the urge to impress her. How pathetic.

“I appreciate the hospitality,” Olive said, “but I’m not going to play along with your act. You can continue if you want, but I’m just going to be sitting here with popcorn.” He crossed his arms. “If you think that you can trick the same person with the same act, maybe it’s time to reconsider who the real stupid one is here.”

Olive had more to lose this time around. He had to be careful.

“How dare you!” Felix snapped, taking a step forward. “You may be the prince of Aries but you are in the land of Sagittarius. You—”

“Calm down, Felix.” Claire held up a hand.

“But—”

“Felix.”

The wooden-masked man tensed and then folded back on himself along the wall. He said nothing more.

Claire turned back to Olive with lightly furrowed brows and a hesitant smile. “I know how it looks with what happened last time, but honestly I—”

“I didn’t come to this country without learning how your government works,” Olive interjected. “I know that the emperor that sits on the throne is your father. I mean, obviously.”

Claire visibly stiffened at this, and his expression twisted in a startling manner. He almost didn’t like himself. The contempt in his eyes.

“I also know that he’s the father of the princes and princesses of the other nine clans here. Your half-siblings. And I know that all of you can technically inherit the throne.” Olive picked up his teacup and stared into it. Cadence’s reflection stared back at him. “There’s a lot of rivalry, I bet… since all of you can inherit the throne. You have to constantly make yourself look good—like, ‘being the one to get aid from foreign countries’ good. What’s pride and honor, right?”

Claire’s frown deepened which Olive couldn’t help but feel a rush of victory from. And a sudden pang of guilt.

Don’t mind it, kid, Cadence’s thoughts of reassurance floated down from somewhere in the dark. Keep goin’.

“And let’s not forget to mention that other thing you’ve been keeping secret from even your closest associates.”

While Soha and Felix exchange looks from behind their masks, Claire paled somewhat.

It’s always good to pretend that ya know more than ya actually do. 

“Look.” Olive sighed. “If you want to lead people around all of the time then get a dog. If you want something from me then just say it. But maybe this time I want something from you too. If not, then we’re both wasting our time here playing pretend—”

Claire rose from his cushion abruptly and slowly walked over to Olive. Trystan tensed from beside him and stiffened further when Claire sank to his knees and bowed before Olive.

“My lord!” Felix unfolded himself from the wall and took a step forward in protest but was stopped by Soha who placed a hand on his arm.

The righteous victory, the coyness, that had been building at Olive’s core crumbled in an instant.

“Prince Chance, I admit that I do have intentions that go beyond me offering you hospitality but I promise you that these intentions do not revolve around me. It involves my sister.”

Eunji? What about her? And now Claire was suddenly speaking like a politician again too. Olive didn’t like this.

“My sister is only twelve years old. She took the V-Type Test recently which revealed that she’s an air Elementalist like me. So she’s… viable for the throne. And because she’s viable, my mother wants her to complete the State Conducting Exam so that our clan has two candidates for potential rulership.”

What? Wasn’t Eunji only around twelve? Wasn’t that too young to take the exam—not to mention inherit a throne? Werner had told Olive that the average age for State Conducting Licensing in Capricorn was sixteen, but Olive had assumed that the early age was due to Capricorn’s military focus. But twelve was kind of—

“But because she’s taking this exam and because she is an air Elementalist, she has been brought to the attention of the other clans. I know they will seek to kill her—”

Kill? Assassinate.

Olive’s heart skipped a beat at the word.

The memory of the arrow wreathed in flames from four months prior came at Olive suddenly.

“—before she can complete the exam in order to decrease my clan’s chances of gaining control over the throne. The other members of my clan have retracted their aid because they don’t view her as worthy. The guards that you see on the estate are the only ones we have to protect her.” Claire took a deep breath. “Please, Prince Chance. My sister means everything to me. I’m not asking for you to protect her, but your presence as the prince of Aries alone will be enough to make the other clans hesitate.” Claire’s fists balled. “Just for a little while, I ask you to accompany us until she completes her exam.”

A succession war, Olive realized, a chill creeping up his spine. That was insane. The idea that there existed people willing to kill someone who showed just a fragment of promise just to gain an upper hand. This wasn’t what Olive had been expecting at all. He had assumed Claire was going to try to use their supposed friendship as a means to make himself look more diplomatically inclined when compared to his half-siblings.

Naive. 

Dangerous. 

“You want the prince to act as a decoy?” Trystan drew darkly, rising to a stand. He stopped short when he saw Soha and Felix tense.

“No, not a decoy. Just as a warning.”

“Then why didn’t you announce that I was the Ariesian prince when I first came here if you want to use me like that?” Olive asked. “And why are you letting your sister take the State Conductor Exam if that’s what’s making people target her? Does she even want to take it? And—saints—get up!”

Claire rose from his bow but remained seated. He locked eyes with Olive, eyes afire. “She must take the State Conductor Exam in order to increase our clan’s chances of gaining the throne. This is for the sake of our clan, Prince Olivier. We cannot be selfish when thinking for our people—I’m sure you understand this.”

Olive felt his stomach tumble, and the anchor that he had forgotten about started to weigh down on his chest again.

“As for why I didn’t announce your status—I want to ensure that any traitors that found their way into our domain will be ousted.” Again, Claire spoke like a politician. “If I revealed that you were the Ariesian prince then they would hide away and bide their time. I can’t let them fly under the radar only to come back up when you are no longer with us… I…” He looked away. “The affairs of my country and clan are complicated.”

It sounded as if Claire was disappointed in himself more than anything else.

“So you’re risking your sister’s life to try and save her?” Olive frowned. “Those are some impressive mental gymnastics.” He rose from his cushion slowly. “Well, I have things I want too, like I said. Risking my life is a high token though, so I’ll think about it.”

Olive headed to the doorway behind him but paused when Trystan started to follow.

“I’m just going to the restroom, Trystan.” Olive waved a dismissive hand. “You can finish your food. I’ll be back in a second.”

Olive exited the room before Trystan could respond. He continued slowly down the hallway and glared holes into the wooden floorboards. He really did hate politics. It was the same here as it was back in Aries. Maneuvering around every other person, playing people like chess pieces, false words and faces. What for? It didn’t make sense.

Something flashed out of the corner of Olive’s eyes. He looked up from the floorboards, paused, stared.

It was Eunji, once again halfway out of one of the sliding doors. Had she been caught earlier and was now trying to attempt another escape? Or had she never been caught in the first place?

They locked eyes.

She didn’t flush this time, at least not visibly. She didn’t move either.

“Your brother cares for you a lot, you know,” Olive said after a beat. “I don’t really care about it but you should think about things like that before you make dumb decisions.”

Eunji stiffened at this and looked down. When she looked back up at him, her cheeks were beet red and the corner of her eyes were wet. “I-I know that…”

Olive tensed and looked left and then right. Shoot. This was awkward. Dammit. This is why he hated getting involved with other people. Misunderstanding and disappointment, one after the other.

“Well, if you know that then why are you out here causing trouble?” Olive finally asked. After not receiving a response, he tried, “Do you think acting like this will make him pay attention to you any less? That’s not how it works, you know. Not with family at least.”

Eunji stared at him, eyes wide.

A padding of footsteps came down the hall before she could respond. Olive turned his head to find the older vassal from earlier approaching him. The woman offered a deep bow and muttered an apology before rounding him and nearing Eunji.

“The others are looking for you on the opposite side of the villa, but I had an inkling you would be on this end,” the vassal said, placing a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “How about we return to your lessons and then we can have some fun, my lady?”

Eunji dipped her head, glanced at Olive, and then nodded meekly.

Smiling at this, the vassal inclined her head in Olive’s direction. “Excuse me, sir.” And then she began leading Eunji down the opposite end of the hall.

Olive stared after them for a beat, before turning on his heels and walking in the opposite direction.

Olive.

It was Atienna. With her thought came a surge of adrenaline. A thrill. Something had happened to her recently, although the details had not fully trickled down to him yet. Her hands were curled into fists. As their synchronization increased, so did the details of her circumstances, as did her image which appeared beside him. He turned to her alarmed.

Atienna—

Something’s not right, don’t you think?

Olive stopped in his tracks and swiveled around.

Eunji and the elder vassal were halfway down the hall. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. In fact, it was a tender scene with the elder vassal guiding Eunji with a hand on the back.

But appearances were deceiving. 

Olive approached them slowly. “Hey, wait a minute.”

They both stopped and turned.

Olive stopped short too a foot away from them. “I… Claire wanted Eunji to come to breakfast with us.”

The vassal smiled. “Yes, well, it may be best if Eunji finishes her morning lessons before that. This is a very important time for her.”

Olive arched a brow. “Can you really think without a full stomach? Or is this some Sagittarian torture technique?”

The vassal’s polite smile drooped. Eunji looked between them in confusion although there was a hesitant smile beginning to climb up her lips.

Careful, Chance. 

It was Werner.

He was watching? Even after—

The vassal shook her head and then spoke in a variant of Sagittarian—one that Cadence knew did not belong to the Seong clan: “I guess I’ll make use of this foolish foreigner now.”

Eunji looked up at the vassal in confusion just as the vassal charged at him—

—Saints, Olive thought in the split second that followed. For an old woman she moves fast—

—and slammed him to the ground.

“That Seong prince will find your corpse and that brat princess’s corpse, and you will be named the assassin,” the old woman hissed.

The override was brief.

One moment the old woman was on top of Olive, and the next he was on top of her. He barely had the chance to digest the sudden change of position before the older woman kicked him away and scrambled backwards. Olive hopped to his feet, grimacing at the knobbing bruise forming at his abdomen, and then ran at the woman with a shout. Instead of charging at her, however, he ran right past her towards Eunji. Olive grabbed the girl by the arm and pulled her close while whirling around and extending out his free hand towards the assassin. Crimson sparks danced at his fingertips and spilled onto the ground.

A line of fire now divided them.

Olive squinted past the flame at the older woman who was now staring at him and gaping. Realization set in for him a beat afterwards.

He had done it. He had done it! He had been able to conduct and control his vitae exactly how he’d wanted too!

Reckless—yes, but he had finally done it!

Focus. 

“I am the Ariesian prince Olivier Chance,” Olive stated as the embers swirled around him. “You dare attack this young girl whose brother offered me hospitality in my presence?”

Well, that’s dramatic, came Cadence’s thought. What’s with all the waxing lyrical? 

Olive felt his cheeks burn—not from the heat of the flame, but from the heat of embarrassment. I know that.

“I care little for the political affairs involved,” Olive continued, speaking above the crackle. “But I cannot stand by while you raise your hand against both me and this innocent young girl. What is your name and where do you hail from?”

The older vassal paled in the light and remained silent.

“You don’t believe me?” Olive pressed. “Is the sight of my flame not enough for you? Are you blind to the color of my vitae?”

I think your overactin’ is convincin’ enough. 

“I ask you again. What is your—”

One of the paper doors behind Olive burst open. In came another woman holding a blade ignited with glowing purple vitae.

It was the other vassal. The younger one who had been with the elder earlier. Her eyes took in the scene in confusion, and then they narrowed with determination. Without another word, she charged at Olive, blade raised.

“No, wait!” shouted the older vassal. “Don’t! That’s—”

Olive brought up his hand, feeling heat spark at his fingertips.

The moment he’d done it, he knew it was too much.

An explosion of heat erupted from his extended hand engulfing the assassin in an instant. A familiar, acrid smell curled up in Olive’s nostrils as the assassin’s screams filled the air. But he couldn’t take time to process the events. The flames were still reaching out and consuming everything, despite the fact that he had lowered his hand and was no longer expelling vitae.

Olive threw himself over Eunji and braced himself for the ensuing heat but—

A cold wind throttled through the hall, blasting open the paper doors and snuffing out the flames in an instant. Light poured in from the outside and blinded him briefly.

When Olive’s eyes adjusted to the brightness, he found Claire standing in the now open hallway behind the elder assassin with his staff conductor in hand. The area around them was speckled with flecks of floating blue light. Behind the Sagittarian prince came Felix, Soha, Trystan, and a handful of other masked guards. Soha quickly apprehended the older assassin who didn’t resist and instead stared horrified in the younger assassin’s direction.

Olive swallowed, felt nausea build at the pit of his stomach, and pulled away from Eunji. He gave her a quick once over and found that—although her face was once again beat red—she seemed fine. He turned back to the younger assassin and felt his head buzz.

The younger assassin laid on the ground groaning, croaking, sobbing. Her entire body was covered in splotches of red and charred black. Her clothing was indiscernible from her skin. The smoke that curled out from her body smelled disgusting and looked unnatural.

Hey, kid, she’s still alive. Nothin’ a little bit of transmutin’ won’t fix. Besides, you were just defendin’ yourself—

But—

“Are you alright, your highness?” Trystan knelt down beside him. “I apologize for not getting here sooner.”

“It’s fine. I’m fine,” Olive murmured, glancing back to his left where Eunji still remained stiff and red. She was staring at his hands which he began to rub despite himself.

A shadow passed over the three of them. Claire. The Sagittarian prince locked eyes with Olive before sinking down next to Eunji.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

Eunji managed a nod.

Several of the guards who had accompanied Claire across the hall abruptly dropped to their knees and bowed before him.

“My lord, I apologize for our negligence,” said the one who was closest. “We should have kept a better eye on her. We are ashamed.”

It was a rather familiar scene.

“No, they slipped past me too,” Claire said, rising to his feet. He turned to Soha who had the elder assassin in tow. Glancing at them briefly, he addressed the other guards: “Please take Eunji to the medical Conductors.” He then glowered at the younger assassin who was sobbing on the ground and cradling her splotchy black and red arms. “Treat her too but don’t let her out of your sights.”

“Yes, my lord,” came the echoing responses.

Felix took the lead and gingerly aided Eunji up to a stand before guiding her down the open hall. The other guards picked up the younger assassin and started off in the opposite direction.

“You are from the Sitaara Clan, correct?” Claire addressed the elder vassal who was staring at Olive. “One of the mid-tier clans. I’ve heard that the eldest princess of your clan took the V-Type Test, and it read that she was a Conjuror. It’s rare, and I understand it must come as a shock to your clan. I do feel some sympathy, and I believe you have learned your lesson, so I will return you and your friend back to your people.” He side-glanced at Olive.

How annoying. But—

“The Sagittarian prince has treated me with hospitality,” Olive stated clearly to the woman. “And it is the Ariesian way to treat those who treat you kindly the same. I won’t stand for underhanded attempts like this against someone who has treated me well.”

“Do you understand the gravity of raising a hand against the Ariesian prince?” Trystan pressed from beside him.

The older woman paled in response and then dropped to her knees, pressing her forehead against the ashen floor. “I did not know you were the Ariesian prince. I would not have laid a hand against you or the young lady if I had known. Please, my actions do not reflect the actions and intentions of my clan towards Aries—”

Olive resisted squirming and merely grimaced. “It shouldn’t matter whether or not I’m the Ariesian prince.” His thoughts returned to the younger assassin, and he looked away from her.

“Y-Yes, of course,” the older woman stammered. “I… my apologies.”

“Since I am releasing you back to your clan,” Claire interjected, “I take it that you will inform them of everything you have witnessed here, correct?”

The woman stiffened at Claire’s voice and lifted her head to glower at him. Her gaze then flicked to Olive and then she bowed her head once more. “Of course.”

Claire ordered Soha to take the woman away leaving the hallway to just himself, Olive, Trystan, and Felix.

“Ollie…” Claire tried hesitantly.

“There’s a temple up in the mountains a couple of miles away from this city. It’s called Bodhi Temple,” Olive began coolly. “Apparently, it has a library of unique books that are good for studying for the State Conducting Exam. Apparently, it’s very hard to get into. In fact, a guide told me that there are only two ways to get into it. Either dedicate your life to the temple or be brought in by someone who has access to that place. And I’ve heard rumors that royal members of Sagittarius’s clans are—”

“Okay.”

Olive closed his mouth, feeling rather un-victorious. “Okay?”

Claire nodded. “That’s actually where the Seong Clan has been sending their potential successors to study for the Conductor Exam for generations. I have a sky v-tram booked to get us there already. You and Trystan are free to come along.”

Olive exchanged a look with Trystan.

“I also need someone who can translate the written word for me. Of all the languages of Sagittarius,” Olive tried challengingly.

“I can do that too.”

***

They left for the sky v-trams two days later.

The sky v-trams were something Olive had been secretly looking forward to seeing. These were things that were exclusive to Sagittarius and consisted of boxcars strung along together and suspended by a pair of very thin cable wires. Metal wing-like extensions designed to catch updrafts protruded from each boxcar. Each tram was conducted by four Licensed air Elementalist Conductors who would conduct air up the shaft of the wings. This paired with the v-trams own uniquely constructed generator conductor brought it higher and higher up the cables to its destination.

Needless to say, when Claire informed Olive that they would need to ride the v-trams in order to reach the temple up in the mountains, Olive had been somewhat happy. If the burnt young woman’s body did not plague his dreams, he might have even been ecstatic. Keep moving forward, was something Werner had told him afterwards. Regrets are tools for motivation if utilized properly.

There were only four people allowed per each boxcar of the v-tram, and so Soha, Felix, Trystan, and Eunji filed into one—both Felix and Trystan protested at this—while Olive and Claire were seated in another. The rest of their shared boxcar was filled up with their luggage which counted as two passengers altogether. A handful of Claire’s other guards were piled up in the adjacent boxcar and would occasionally check on them through the window of the doors that separated the cars.

The sides of the boxcars were lined with red cushion seats but also contained poles to hold onto for standing. Olive opted to stand in order to get a good look out of the large windows lining the cart above the seats, and he watched with mild interest as the wings of the boxcars shook as they ascended. Seeing the ginormous v-tram station fall away below him and blur away to a tiny dot was interesting to say the least.

Claire abruptly joined him after spending half an hour searching his luggage. The Sagittarian prince leaned against one of the poles adjacent to Olive and crossed his arms. Olive offered him a disinterested look in turn before admiring the view again.

“I guess you want me to tell you more about True Conductors as a part of everything too then, right?” Claire asked suddenly, rubbing the back of his neck. “Since we’re alone for the moment, I thought it’d be best to get this out of the—”

Olive felt his heart skip a beat, and he turned to Claire slowly. “What.”

Claire froze and dropped his hand. “What?”

“Did you just say True Conductors?!” Olive snapped, taking a challenging step forward before hesitating and then taking a cautious step back. “How do you know that word?”

“Because I am one?” Claire returned with a perplexed expression. “You didn’t know—but I thought—isn’t that the reason why you said what you said?”

What?

“The secret that I kept hidden from everyone—you said you knew what it was,” Claire explained, before realization eclipsed his features. He sighed, rubbed his face, and then rubbed the back of his neck. “You were bluffing. I should’ve known.”

Olive remained silent, staring, unsure of how to react, unsure if he should try to reach out to the others.

“Well, we did make a deal, and I’m grateful for your help.” Claire glanced out the window and then back at Olive. “So, anyway, I bet you have a lot of questions now, huh? I’d be happy to answer what I can.”

There was a long stretch of quiet. Their compartment darkened as they passed through a patch of clouds.

“You’re a True Conductor?”

“Yes, that’s what I said.” Claire chuckled a bit—almost nervously.

“And… what are True Conductors?”

“People like you and me,” Claire elaborated without really elaborating.

“And who are people like you and me?”

“People who are psychically connected with other people,” Claire said, tapping his temple. “Connected through memory and therefore thought and feeling.” He tapped his chest to finish the statement. “It’s a bit romantic if I say it like that though.”

“You’re connected to other people too…?” Olive knew he sounded like a broken record, but he was too befuddled by the sudden revelation to think straight.

“Yup,” Claire popped. “I am connected with other people, but I’ll refrain from saying who. I’m sure after that whole thing in New Ram City, you’re plenty aware of the dangers that come with this… status.”

“Why…?” Olive shook his head. “I mean why are we… like this?”

Claire frowned, and Olive could see the gears turning in his head. His gaze brightened as he realized the meaning of Olive’s question. “Well, the why still escapes me, honestly. But the how is through a mutually-timed, near-death experience. At that moment where everyone in your connected group was knocking on death’s door, your vitaes somehow crossed over—”

“The Anima-Vitae Hypothesis….”

Claire’s brow shot up somewhat. “Yes, exactly. The top Conductors in vitae research at Ophiuchus say that there’s no sound evidence behind the idea, but there’s no sound evidence denying it either. So I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt and agree that vitae does in fact store memories. I’ll refrain from commenting on the soul aspect of the entire thing since I’m no philosopher.” A sheepish chuckle.

“Vitae stores memories.” Olive tried a course correction.

“Right. That’s actually how this psychic link works. It isn’t that we’re able to telepathically communicate with people in our group. It’s just that the memory of our thoughts is flowing into the other person.” Claire made a circle with his index finger in the air. “The mirage of the person you see is all just a memory that they have of themselves. Simple.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Well, we timed it when my group and I met physically in person. It actually was only a month after we became connected. Anyways, when we were speaking to one another inside of our heads, a person in my group noticed that there was a very small lag between when something would be said and when something would be responded to. When we timed it, we noticed that there was a five-second gap between when one person would think of something and—yeah.”

Olive figured he made a face because Claire chuckled again.

“The time frame got shorter, of course, the longer our group was connected,” Claire explained. “We stopped timing it three years ago when it was below half a second. We thought it had to do with the amount of memories we shared, but who knows really.”

Three years ago? How long exactly had Claire been a True Conductor?

Brushing those thoughts aside, Olive took a brief moment to mull over the information.

Everything Claire said sounded realistic, but a portion of it didn’t match up with his own experiences. Was there really such a lengthy lag between his communication with the other five? It didn’t seem so much that he was speaking to a memory of them than actually speaking to them. And if there really was such a time lag with newly connected groups, how had the other five helped him as if they were actually there on that day in New Ram City?

“Speaking of memories, I honestly was a bit concerned for you in the beginning. You may or may not have experienced this already, but the more time you spend connected to them the higher the chance that there’s going to be an overlap.”

“Overlap?”

“Mhm, like… a possession almost.”

“An override.”

“Is that what you call it? So you must have experienced it yourself already.” Claire hummed. “Or maybe you were the one doing it since your sense of self is pretty strong from what I’ve seen.”

Olive couldn’t help but grimace as he recalled his override of Werner. As Claire’s words settled in, he arched a brow at him. “Sense of… self?”

“Yeah, your sense of who you are, your ideals, your values. Well, I’m sure you’ve noticed that the connection tends to affect everyone in your group a little differently.” Claire shrugged. “Some people receive more memories and the feelings associated with them than others, and some people are more affected by things like that. Those all have to do with how strong that sense of self is. The weaker, the more easily affected. Of course, that’s not a bad thing exactly.”

Olive’s thoughts immediately returned to Werner. A weak sense of self? Werner of all people? No. That didn’t make any sense. Werner was dependable, reliable, reasonable, and steadfast.

“It does make some good food for thought though.” Claire looked out the window again, but the darkened clouds had made it more of a mirror so he was left staring at his reflection. “Memories make us who we are, right? So… then…” Claire waved a dismissive hand. “Well, anyways, I haven’t encountered any groups that have completely shared their memories one hundred percent yet.”

“So there are more people like us?”

Claire nodded. “I’ve come across a total of ten separate groups not including you. Whenever we’d come across each other, we’d exchange notes about the things we experienced. That’s how I know so much about this.” His gaze darkened suddenly. “Of course, that was before.”

“Before?” Olive sighed, scowled. “Stop making everything so mysterious and get to the point.”

“How do I put this without making you launch yourself out of this sky v-tram to try to get away from me…”

“Maybe by not starting off with that,” Olive grumbled.

Claire frowned and a hardness entered his gaze. “Of the ten groups that I encountered before, only four of them are still… active.”

“Active?”

“The other six have completely disappeared off of the face of this earth,” Claire said. “The other nine True Conductors and I had all planned a get together a year ago. I was invited but I didn’t end up going since I had my State Conducting Exam to go to. Someone in my group went instead—although she’s a loner so she kept to herself and sorta spied on them instead of being friendly.” A fond smile traced his lips at the last statement, but then the corners of his lips drooped down again. “After that meeting, we started losing contact with the other groups one by one. We think some True Conductors out there might be hunting other True Conductors down. Maybe they’re working with ELPIS? I don’t know. And why ELPIS is after us—I don’t know either.”

“So then why trust me and why trust you?”

“Good question.” Claire rubbed the back of his neck again. “You just seem trustworthy to me. As for why you can trust me—that’s up to you really…”

Olive grimaced. “How did you know I was one…?”

“Well, it was kind of obvious. You talked to yourself a lot, and the night we first met you pulled some pretty unnatural moves. I mean, I know they teach you a lot of things in your royal academy, but you held your own against Felix that night and he’s been trained for his entire life. You hurt his ego a lot by the way.”

Ha.

“But you’ve stopped doing that now which is good. And it’s also good that the ELPIS member… that Izsak Wtorek—”

Olive’s heart skipped a beat, and he found himself rubbing his throat.

“—who found out that you were a True Conductor is locked up in Ophiuchus now. He won’t tell the other members of ELPIS so you’re safe.”

“That’s not the only group we should be worrying about.”

Claire looked away from the window with a perplexed expression.

“It’s not just ELPIS that’s after True Conductors,” Olive explained. “It’s… well… I don’t know who, but someone who’s connected to me encountered a saint candidate who knew the word ‘True Conductor’.”

“A saint candidate?” Claire’s frown deepened. “Are you sure?”

“I wouldn’t say it if I wasn’t sure.” Olive glanced back at the other compartment. “She actually became less hostile when she found out that ‘my person’ was a True Conductor.”

“That’s pretty strange,” was Claire’s only comment.

“The saint candidate is also working for the ELPIS Department of Ophiuchus,” Olive mumbled, “and we’ve been thinking she might be connected to ELPIS somehow or maybe another group also looking for us—”

“Just because it’s one saint candidate doesn’t mean that it’s the others,” Claire interjected, voice tight, eyes sharp.

“I didn’t say it was…” Olive frowned, and Claire looked away from him in turn.

It seemed like a touchy subject. Too much of a hassle to address further. Better to drop it.

Claire seemed to appreciate the silence that followed, because he addressed Olive with a light-hearted smile next: “That ability of yours to conduct without a conductor is something else though. I don’t know any True Conductors who can do that.” He studied Olive for a moment. “Are you sure you shouldn’t try hiding it a bit? Like try using a conductor instead?”

“You don’t think I tried?” Olive grimaced. “I’ve burned right through all of them just like that.” He snapped his fingers.

Claire’s brows shot up, and he chuckled. “You’re quite terrifying, you know?” He tapped his chin and dquinted. “Are you having trouble controlling it—your conducting, I mean?”

Olive’s mind flashed to the young assassin, and nausea gripped his stomach.

Claire hummed. “Well, maybe the monks at the temple can give you a hand with that. Air Elementalist conducting is very different from fire Elementalist conducting—or so I’ve heard—so maybe leveraging the two will…” He shrugged. “I have no idea where I’m going with this, to be honest.”

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to go to the temple. Air conducting is freer in a practical sense, while fire conducting has to be more controlled and precise.” Olive nodded, suppressing the nausea with a deep breath. He prepared to continue to address the subject when a thought—rather, a realization—came at him suddenly. He unfolded himself from the pole he was leaning against and took a step forward. “Wait, forget about that—what about the syzygy? What is that even?”

“What?” Claire frowned perplexed, un-crossing his arms. “Syz…ygy? What’s that? Something to do with your conducting?”

“…nevermind.” Olive frowned, folding back against the pole. After a beat, he said, “You’re awfully relaxed about being-hunted-down-by-ELPIS situation. It must be nice to be so carefree.”

Claire chuckled at this, but the sound was hollow. “Ollie, I know I’ll probably sound selfish by saying this but I don’t have the time to worry about things like that. I have my clan and my country to think about. I’m sure you understand, right?”

Olive shrugged.

“Anyway, the key here is to be careful.”

The clouds pulled away, revealing the bright of the sun and the looming mountains below.


(             )

In the room with no windows, no doors, and no exits, the six children dashed around in excitement. It was a game of tag, it seemed. They wove around the candles littering the floor, stumbled over the stacks of books that rose up like pillars, and bumped into the bookcases lining the walls.

Tau watched them go from where he sat alone at the gameboard table before he slammed his hand against his leg and jabbed a finger in their direction. “Stop running!”

The children froze and stared.

“What is wrong with you kids nowadays?! First you run around acting like you own the entire place, and then what?! You’ll be taking this outside and disturbing the lives of all the upstanding common folk! Jaywalking, trespassing! All it takes is one slip-up, and you’ll be in and out of youth correctional centers for the rest of your life—”

“Leave it be, Tau,” came a familiar voice from the dark, “you have more important things to do. Besides you six will take responsibility and clean after yourselves, right? Responsibility is everything.”

The six children nodded fiercely before they continued their play—this time carefully straightening the items that were out of place along the way.

Tau sighed, pushed up his glasses, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yes, about ‘those important things.’ Unfortunately, I’m not getting anywhere even with my connections. Nothing on our package from Verga and nothing on that other vitae reservoir and generator conductor.”

A page turn and a thoughtful hum came in response. “I see, so we can’t rely on that then. That’s not unexpected. You weresomeone who was paid to look away from these types of affairs.”

Pushing his glasses up his nose again, Tau scowled but refrained from chasing the subject. “We still haven’t heard back from Omicron, Omega, and Beta either. Are you sure we should be moving forward with this, ‘leader’?”

“Beta’s and Omicron’s affairs are separate from us. And you know Omega is a cautious person. They won’t move until the time is right.” A flutter of another page. “Besides, Omicron never fails.”


Sagittarius’s royal succession ceremonies are elaborate and are celebrated all over the country. In order to be considered viable for the throne, an individual must be a direct descendant of the emperor or empress, be an air Elementalist, and obtain a State Conducting License. Near the end of the ruler’s reign, the crown princes and princesses of the ten clans of Sagittarius gather at the capital to initiate the selection proceedings. The final decision is made by the ruler, thus each clan tries their best to earn their favor. 

Countries of Signum by Various Authors, 20th edition

2.[]: Boy in the Capital

“Hm. Yes, that boy. The foreigner. Claire. He’s very well-mannered. He says he’s here searching for something. Something he can only find here. I don’t have a clue what that is. The heat maybe?”

Sarah Apples, Fruit Stall Owner in New Ram City

New Ram City, Aries

The dawn air had soaked up much of the late-night rain and hung heavy with humidity. Even with the breeze circling around him, he was sweating. While the sky-blue cloak drawn over his head protected his dark hair from drinking in the sun’s rays, it also trapped him in his own sweltering body heat.

How Ariesians could tolerate these blazing temperatures astounded him.

The downtown marketplace was just beginning to awaken, and all the Ariesian small-time business owners threw open their windows and greeted the scathing heat with either a hearty, determined nod or enthusiastic smile.

An older woman with deeply tanned skin and wisps of gray hair hidden beneath a faded kerchief was opening a fruit stall to his left. He approached her with a friendly smile and after some bargaining, he managed to get a pound of peaches for five common-coins. The units of measurement in Aries always confused Claire. They were the only country in Signum that preferred using imperial to metric.

Regardless, the peaches were a bargain. Smaller stores often preferred their native currency—in this case, the flimsy Ariesian bill—over common-coin and tended to charge higher on foreign currency. He thanked the woman with a bow before retreating to the shade provided by a tarp canvas pulled over a jewelry stall. There he sat on a crate and bit into a peach as he watched the dawning buzz of the marketplace evolve into a daybreak bustle.

He couldn’t help but smile as he watched a child around the age of twelve—who was helping her parents transport crates of spare conductor parts—pause and bask in a sudden gust of wind. The wind swirled through her dark hair before coming up to meet him where he sat.

Conductors… What was it that Olive had said the night before? A conductor with a strong insulator? Yes, that did make sense conceptually.

He took another bite of his peach and chewed thoughtfully.

Olive Chance. Olivier Chance. Ariesian prince.

He scanned the crowd and rolled the peach in his palm, nearly dropping it when he spotted the very subject of his thoughts amongst the masses of colorful cloaks and twirling umbrellas. A cloak of deep red shrouded the prince’s dark head in shadow, but those green eyes were unmistakable. Behind Olive trailed two men dressed in uniform, metallic and red. The red seemed to part the crowd of the bazaar like waves.

A silence took over the passersby as they stared, and whispers of speculation followed.

But he knew the truth. This was indeed Olive Chance.

Tucking the peach back into his bag, he leaped from his seat, shouting: “Olive!” He waved wildly as he wove through the bodies crowding the marketplace. “Olive!”

Wide, green eyes turned toward him.

“Olive!” he exclaimed one last time as he broke through the crowd with arms wide. He brought his hands down on the prince’s shoulders. “You’re okay!”

Olive pulled away from him. “Claire?!” For a moment, the corners of his mouth ticked upward. “How…?”

“I’m—”

Before Claire could even finish his sentence, he was met with the flame-lit tip of a drawn arrow. At the other feathered end of the weapon was a young man wearing a fiercely stern expression. His hair was black and cut layered, and his almond-shaped eyes were hazel.

“Release the prince at once,” he ordered, pulling the arrow taut.

Before Claire could comply with the order, Olive clicked his tongue loudly, pulled away from Claire’s grip, and pushed the bow-wielding man’s arms aside.

“Trystan, stop.”

Trystan tensed but did not lower his weapon.

“He isn’t a threat,” Olive finally said, glancing away. “This is Claire. The guy I mentioned who was with me last night.” He gave Claire a once over. The relief that had been on his face was now replaced by curiosity and suspicion.

“What?” Trystan whispered before he lowered his weapon. “Him? My apologies,” Trystan said as he fastened his conductor to his belt, still eyeing Claire with suspicion. “But if that’s the case, I’m going to have to take you in for questioning.”

Claire started. “Q-questioning…?”

“It is my duty as head royal guard to ensure that members of the royal family are protected. Since you were involved in an incident that may be tied to the assass—”

“If you want to go accusing people of things,” Olive interjected with a look of annoyance, “move to a more private area. Unless you like broadcasting political issues to the entire city.”

Trystan stiffened and glanced around. The whispering around them had become louder now. He exchanged a look with his fellow guard, then swallowed and cleared his throat. “My apologies, Prince. Claire, if you would come with us, we will take you to the palace so you can be questioned. It will not take long.”

“Not take long?” Olive stared. “It took us two hours to get here because of the traffic. And we still haven’t gotten the things we need. I’m not going until we’ve got everything.”

Trystan’s eyes narrowed. “Right, your highness. Then I’ll have Samuel take him instead while I remain here with you.”

“Look,” Olive said, “it’ll take two times as long without Samuel.”

“What do you suggest,” Trystan asked.

Claire studied Trystan. For someone who was head royal guard, this man seemed like a novice. There was a lack of professionalism in the way he conducted himself with Olive. Perhaps this was a cultural difference. Or maybe it had to do with Olive’s personality. Or it could have been Trystan himself.

Trystan turned to Claire since Olive only offered continued silence. There was frustration in his eyes, but he spoke calmly: “Claire, seeing as we are occupied at the moment, I would rather you accompany us until we finish our… duties… then accompany us back to the palace for questioning.”

“Ah, well, actually that all kinda works out.” Claire chuckled sheepishly. He turned to Olive. “Now that I know you’re okay, I was hoping to ask you about that conductor.”

They wove through the marketplace district with surprising ease, discussing parts and models of conductors. Slowly their conversation turned toward the events of the night before and Trystan couldn’t help but involve himself in the details.

“So, you tried to run and get help using the chaos as a distraction.”

Claire nodded. “But all the guard posts I ran to were empty.”

“Because we were already assisting the prince at the scene.”

“And when I ran back—”

“The situation was already dealt with,” Trystan concluded. “We were no longer in the area.”

“I hope that clears things up.” Claire rubbed the back of his neck. “I didn’t mean to cause so much trouble.”

Trystan held up a hand. “No, I’m glad you were with the prince. Your presence may have been what thwarted the attack. You still will need to report to the palace though. My opinion means little.”

Claire stared up at Trystan’s serious face.

Olive was walking half a meter ahead of them and Claire ran to join him, but Olive did not so much as acknowledge him.

“So, the conductor you mentioned last night,” Claire began. “I know you showed me to a general conductor store, but I honestly still don’t know what to loo—”

“There’s nothing more annoying than a guy who beats around the bush.”

Claire frowned in confusion.

“It’s a two-way torture,” Olive continued without looking at him. He grimaced. “Then again, I could care less about whether or not you want to torture yourself, so never mind. Ask about it or don’t.”

Well, that certainly was a roundabout way of speaking.

Claire hesitated and glanced at Olive’s hands. “You mean… ask about that?”

Now Olive met his gaze. His eyes were emerald, narrowed.

“I… I didn’t want to be rude or anything, but since you asked…”

His gaze then flicked to Trystan, who followed closely behind. There was tension between them.

“What kind of conductor were you using?” Claire pressed with wide eyes. “I’ve never seen anything like it before! It was so small I couldn’t even see it! I was actually wondering about that, but I thought that it wouldn’t be right if I mentioned it because of what was going on so I…” He trailed off.

Olive regarded him for a minute before he scowled. “You really are…”

“Are what?” Claire pressed. When he received no response, he suppressed a sigh and glanced around. “By the way, I’m sorry if I’m overstepping here, but is it really safe to be wandering around the streets like this when you have something like that going on?”

Olive followed his gaze before frowning deeper than he already was. “Staying in one place in a situation like this does more harm than good. Habits make you an easier target.” He let out a sigh. “Besides, my damn bird has been making a mess in his cage. I think I need to change his diet.”

“You’re shopping for your pet bird?” Claire couldn’t help but chuckle. “That’s surprising.”

“How? You don’t know me. I don’t know you.”

“But it doesn’t have to be that way, right?”

This made Olive halt in his tracks and stare.

Claire stiffened beneath the attention and felt himself flush. “Uh… well… I’m sure you have a lot of friends in high places. I mean—not in a bad way. Like sons and daughters of officials—um. But anyways, a commoner like me probably doesn’t have much to offer you so—”

“You really are an…” Olive trailed off without a change in expression, and for a moment, Claire thought a different word would fall from his mouth. But in the end Olive let out what appeared to be his favorite word: “Idiot.”

Ouch.

“It depends on your definition of idiot,” Claire returned. “But I think you have a very broad definition of that.”

“A lot of people fall into that category in my book,” he said.

Claire blinked in surprise before he chuckled. “It’s always good to fall in with the majority.”

They spent the next couple of hours weeding through the marketplace. When they stopped by a conductor parts stall, Olive took the time to point out which parts were overpriced and which were too good to be sold at a backwater market. The stall owners seemed to be biting their tongues all the while—something Olive seemed to enjoy to almost devilish levels.

When they saw shops selling pet-care supplies, Claire took the time to explain which feeds were appropriate for which kind of birds.

“You know a lot about birds,” Olive finally noted, looking disinterested as usual as he spun a birdcage from where it hung on a pole.

“Oh, yeah.” Claire chuckled. “I usually end up spending a lot of time in places full of them. You tend to pick up a thing or two.”

Olive chuckled. Or perhaps he scoffed. Maybe sneered. It was hard to tell. “So that’s the kind of company you hang around. Makes sense.”

It was definitely a sneer. The implication was clear.

Still, Claire smiled. “It’s therapeutic, you know.”

Olive regarded him for a moment before the sneer slid from his face.

At the next conductor shop, Olive casually asked, “You have a conducting license, right?” He sounded like he already knew the answer, and so when Claire presented him with a—

“Why?”

—he turned to him with a bewildered expression. After the singular question and its implication registered with him, Olive snapped, “Because you need one to buy a weaponized conductor!”

“Ah… that’s right.”

“You’re not even a Conductor, are you?”

Claire scratched the back of his neck. “Well, that’s why I needed help, you see. Because I’m not a Conductor myself so I don’t really know. Well, I can always come back for it after I get a license,” Claire hummed.

Olive looked down. “It must be nice…. to be so carefree.”

At the cusp of dusk, they finally completed their last stop.

The traffic had increased tenfold around them. They were limb-to-limb with other shoppers and a couple of shopkeepers who were closing up. Olive briefly mentioned something about rush hour, and how everyone was now trying to leave the marketplace at the same time. Trystan and Samuel attempted to push back the crowd while simultaneously juggling all the items Olive had bought.

“Be careful,” one of them said.

“It’s easy to get lost or pickpocketed,” someone else said.

But Claire did not hear the rest of their worries.

Because Claire had already slipped away from them.

* * *

From the belfry of a steeple that oversaw the entire market square, Claire sat enjoying the evening breeze. He was seated on the railings that caged in the bell behind him with one leg dangling over the edge and the other tucked just beneath it. He studied the people below.

In the square, the little dots of Ariesian citizens and of tourists darted from stall to stall, cloaks fluttering. From this distance, the sleeves of their cloaks looked almost like wings. The way they wandered around without exiting reminded him of birds trapped inside a cage. Claire couldn’t help but smile at the thought.

A shadow flickered from behind him. Then another. He turned.

Standing in front of the bell was a figure dressed in black-cloth stealth gear. A traditional white mask painted on with red cheeks and a black smile obscured their face. Beside that figure crouched another in similar gear, wearing a wooden mask.

Claire smiled. “I was afraid that you were going to kill that Ariesian guard.”

“I-I apologize,” stammered the wooden-masked man as he bowed his head. In the next second, he sprung up into a stand with a fisted hand. “But he was going to lay a hand on you and—”

“Settle down now,” the white-mask said not unkindly, but not gently either.

“It’s all right.” Claire nodded. “I understand how you feel. Ariesians are pretty dangerous.” He turned back to the scenery. The square was empty now. The white tiles of the marketplace seemed to glow in the heat. “Besides, in the end, I was able to earn his trust.” A smirk tugged at the corner of his lips. “Though I have to work on his head guard.”

“And what now?”

Claire rose to his feet on the railings. “See if Ophiuchus has sent anyone to handle the situation yet. If they intervene, we may have to change our plans.”

“And what will you do?” the white-mask pressed.

“I’m going to get a private session with the Ariesian prince.” Claire threw a thin smile over his shoulder. With that, he dug into his back pants pocket and pulled out a slender cylindrical object that was eight centimeters in diameter and a tenth of a meter long. It was sleek and black with four holes that ran in a straight line along its length. The wind whistled through the holes almost musically. The whistle deepened to a hum as he spun the object in hand. Out from both ends of the cylinder popped the rest of its length, which gave it a completed height of two meters.

Giving the thing one last turn, he listened as the extensions clicked into place and pointed his newly elongated staff down into the city. Wind gathered where his hands skirted the holes in the staff; and with a flick of the thing, he sent the breeze whipping out around him. The bell tolled behind him at the force of the wind, while the two figures embraced the welcomed reprieve from the Ariesian heat.

Giving his companions one last nod, he stepped off the building with his staff in hand. The breeze caressed him and caught him mid-air, lifting him onto his staff, which had remained floating horizontally in the sky. He landed deftly on it, balancing on the thin beam, using the arches of his feet.